In Consideration of Sir John A.

To The Editor,

I see that Sir John A. Macdonald continues his fall from grace unabated.

Sir John A. was a man of his times and his times weren’t very tolerant or enlightened. If we were able to meet him, or his contemporaries, we’d most likely be appalled by their opinions and beliefs, as they would by ours, we being people of our times.

Sir John A. lived in an age of steam and steel when the conquest of nature and the expansion of Empire were the main events. Property rights, not human rights, were the order of the day. In this prevailing world view indigenous culture counted for little. Just another tree to be felled so rails could be laid.

In regards to the founding of the Residential Schools, Sir John A. is on record as saying, after characterizing natives as “savages”,” …the Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men” [1] This is a damning statement by our lights but I suspect that he saw it as doing the “Indians” a favor by integrating them into the “dominant” culture. Indeed, it was his duty to “pick up the White Man’s burden”, as colonialism and paternalism were eventually to be rationalized by Kipling.

The separation of children from their parents is a great evil in any age. That being said, this was a time when thousands of children were literally shipped out of Britain to work in Canada and other parts of the Empire. [2]  Cheap labour? No doubt. Abuse? A blind eye, but also a chance for many to survive in a world without safety nets.

I once read a memoir by Peter Freuchen, a Danish explorer who spent many years in the Arctic during the early twentieth century. [3] He relates seeing sled dogs hung by the neck until half conscious and then having their front teeth knocked out in order to prevent them from eating the rawhide traces that were used to pull the sleds. Apparently not an uncommon practice. [4] This horrific image of animal cruelty has always stuck with me. Were these people of the North monsters? Or were they people of their times and their place and their culture dealing with a survival issue in the only way they knew how?

Perhaps we should cut Sir John A. some slack, if only in the hope that when our actions come up for review, the future may cut some for us.

  1. House of Commons, May 1883 as quoted in John A. Macdonald was the architect of residential schools by Sean Carleton, The Star, July 9, 2017
  2. Home Children, 1869-1932, Library and Archives Canada, and associated websites
  3. Freuchen, Arctic Adventure: My life in the Frozen North, Farrar and Rinehart, 1935
  4. PLoS One. 2014; 9(6): e99746. Online publication, June 18, 2014, R. J. Losey et al, Craniomandibular Trauma and Tooth Loss in Northern Dogs and Wolves…(etc)

Thomas Gonzalez
Vankleek Hill


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