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Analysis

Reframing Sir John A.

Rewriting his legacy shapes a rewrite of Canada

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/1/2015 (864 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

"When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years"

-- Mark Twain

This statue of Sir John A. Macdonald in Kingston, Ont., was defaced one year ago.

LARS HAGBERG / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

This statue of Sir John A. Macdonald in Kingston, Ont., was defaced one year ago.

Sunday marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister. If you've been keeping up with debate in the media, you'll have seen a tumultuous to-ing and fro-ing of opinion about our "founding father." The man is seen both as a progressive foundational leader and as a racist, genocidal drunk.

As a patriotic Scottish Cree, I am pretty torn about the man. Growing up, I learned in school he was SIR John A., that he was solely responsible for the creation of this country we love and that to question this fact was unpatriotic. That's what I remember anyway.

I learned nothing of treaties back then, or the role First Nations people played in developing Canada. Like other young Canadians, I viewed #SirJAM as infallible and a near-perfect hero, not unlike the way a young child often views his or her parents, through naive eyes.

I have since matured from an ill gosling to a good goose (bit of Scottish humour, though my wife would argue I'm still ill), and so have my views of Sir John A. and Canada itself.

Here is where I am torn.

The case in support of Sir John A.'s legacy would argue he pushed for the negotiation of treaties with First Nations people in what is now Western Canada as a necessary first step in his plan to unite the country coast to coast.

This contrasts with the United States's approach to dealing with First Nations via military force with treaties being signed only after military defeat. In Canada, in part due to Sir John A., treaties prevented wars.

He was, in fact, our most ardent and first anti-American leader and, thanks to that and his approach to Canadians treaties, he prevented the western provinces from eventually being annexed by the U.S.

On top of this, Sir John A. brought in legislation that gave voting rights to First Nations people without them having to give up their treaty rights, via the Franchise Act of 1885. Repealed in 1898 by Wilfrid Laurier, this left First Nations people without the vote in Canada until 1960. I would say Sir John A.'s actions in this regard were nothing short of progressively global, especially for the time period.

Concurrently, however, the Father of Confederation was implementing policies indigenous researchers have called racist and even genocidal.

In making way for the railroad across the very provinces accessed through treaty, Sir John A. implemented heavy-handed tactics to move First Nations people off of land he needed for the lines.

In his book, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, James Daschuk details the use of 'starvation' tactics and the horrific acts that would perhaps land a world leader today in front of the International Criminal Court.

Do I become less of a First Nations patriot if I do not acknowledge this?

Great social studies teachers will always tell you, "History without context or perspective is propaganda."

How we write and rewrite Sir John A.'s legacy will shape how we write and rewrite Canada. Some will use the opportunity to push self-victimization; some will use the opportunity to push an oppressive colonial 'assimilate or perish' mindset.

What we do know is that, as a country, as we mature, we have to see our founding fathers and mothers as the human beings they were. Imperfect, tarnished, struggling, yet fundamental to who we are today.

Every family has its baggage and Canada cannot be excluded from this reality; as Daschuk argues, we have genocidal skeletons in our own closet.

So, rather than placing every hero on a pedestal, we should consider each an imperfect human being. I view Tommy Prince, with all of his imperfections, in high regard for his military accomplishments; Pierre Trudeau with respect, for patriating the Constitution and bringing in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in spite of his ill-informed attempt to assimilate First Nations via the 1969 White Paper; and, Sir John A. Macdonald realistically, for affecting First Nations in both positive and negative ways, the impacts of which we are still dealing with today.

How we judge Sir John will determine how we judge and, ultimately, shape Canada. Let's not pretend our history is all glory and romance, but let's also not dwell in the cellar of our collective horrors, either. That and some healthy optimism can allow us to see our founding fathers for who they were and take the best from them.

As Mark Twain grew older, he learned his father was human and that, despite his flaws, he could indeed learn more than a few things from him. We need not ask more of our founding fathers.

 

James Wilson is commissioner of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, a neutral body mandated to encourage discussion, facilitate public understanding and enhance mutual respect between all peoples in Manitoba.

Twitter: @JamesBWilson_

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