January 11th marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of John A. Macdonald. On the eve of a federal election, the ambiguous legacy of the country’s first Prime Minister speaks to ongoing issues that actively shape the emotional landscapes of the nation. Macdonald is revered by many as one of the nation’s founders, a symbol of the hardiness of Canadian settlers and the source of Canadian values. However, the historical evidence gives clear indication that underlying Macdonald’s politics were racist ideas and crass political expediency, and that these features characterized the nation’s earliest relations with both indigenous peoples as well as non-white migrants. For instance, “while debating the 1885 Electoral Franchise Act in the House of Commons, legislation he later called “my greatest triumph,” Macdonald proposed that “Chinamen” should not have the right to vote on the grounds that they were “foreigners” and that “the Chinese has no British instincts or British feelings or aspirations.” He then claimed that the Chinese and Europeans were separate species: “the Aryan races will not wholesomely amalgamate with the Africans or the Asiatics” and that “the cross of those races, like the cross of the dog and the fox, is not successful; it cannot be, and never will be.”
Macdonald also demonstrated a consistent disdain for indigenous peoples, writing that it would be “extremely inexpedient to deal with the Indian bands in the Dominion as being in any way separate nations,” despite the original nation-to-nation nature of the treaties signed by indigenous peoples. He also was responsible for the creation of the residential school system – now widely recognized as genocidal in both its intent and its practices.
As the election nears, to what extent does the appeal to “British instincts” and “British feelings and aspirations” that MacDonald referred to continue to influence the popular narratives that flourish in different areas of contemporary Canadian society?