The Fight Over Canada’s Founding Prime Minister

Attacks on symbols of nationhood are not merely symbolic actions. They strike at the nationhood the symbol represents.

John Macdonald's likeness on the Canadian $10 bill, surrounded by red lines and tape
Chris Jobs / Alamy; Evgenia Vasileva / Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: David Frum is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy (2020). In 2001 and 2002, he was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush.

Updated at 9:50 a.m. ET on June 22, 2021

The memory of John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, is not thriving these days in the country he brought into being. In 2018, his image was removed from the Canadian $10 bill, which it had decorated since 1971. His name has been quietly scrubbed from the Ottawa airport named in his honor in 1993. In August 2020, vandals toppled a statue of Macdonald in Montreal. The city of Kingston, Ontario, legally removed his statue on June 18—a special blow to Macdonald’s memory in the city he represented in Parliament throughout most of his career.* This summer, the province of Prince Edward Island removed a modern statue of Macdonald from its capital, Charlottetown. Even the small town of Picton, Ontario, where Macdonald argued his first law cases, will soon remove a statue erected with donations from local residents, my wife’s family among them. Macdonald’s name has been erased from university and school buildings, and even book prizes.

These changes are not driven by public opinion. A 2018 poll by the Angus Reid Institute found that 70 percent of Canadians opposed the erasure of Macdonald’s image, compared with only 11 percent who supported it. Another poll in summer 2020 found that 75 percent of Canadians opposed the “spontaneous” teardown of Macdonald statues.

In his lifetime, Macdonald often remarked, “Forms are things.” Attacks on symbols of nationhood are not merely symbolic actions. They strike at the nationhood the symbols represent. By the standards of any age, Macdonald was a good-humored, tolerant, liberal-minded man. He was legendary for his indulgence of criticism, for the charm of his personality. In 1885, he introduced a law that would have extended suffrage to property-owning unmarried women and widows. As attorney general of the pre-confederation province of Canada, he battled to protect escaped American slaves from extradition. His government persuaded the British government in 1862 to pass a new habeas corpus act that imposed new restrictions on cooperation with U.S. slave hunters. He welcomed Jewish immigration to Canada and for a long time strenuously but unsuccessfully resisted efforts to exclude Chinese immigrants (he later flip-flopped when he saw that the cause was lost). He headed a political coalition that bridged Canada’s great divide between French speakers and English speakers—and worked all his life for accommodation and respect between the two mutually suspicious cultures. Macdonald shared many of the prejudices of his time—as you and I share the prejudices of ours. Perhaps our prejudices will look better a century and a half hence than Macdonald’s look now. Perhaps not.

Why is Macdonald suddenly so beleaguered? Why does a motivated minority want to erase the honors paid to his memory? Macdonald stands accused by his detractors less of things he did than of things he failed to do. He failed to provide sufficient aid to Indigenous people impoverished by the disappearance of the buffalo from the western prairies. He failed to anticipate the abuses that would arise in the residential schools his government created for Native students. More fundamentally, Macdonald set his face against the attempt to preserve Native societies as independent sovereignties within Canada. He wanted to bring them into Canada as farmers, citizens, and voters. He wrote in 1887: “The great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are fit to change.” Macdonald believed that assimilation would save people endangered by the collapse of their accustomed way of life—and allow them to be welcomed as equals into the country he was building.

Macdonald’s assimilationist policies have fallen out of favor with Canadian governments and the dominant voices in Canadian media and academia. Today’s approach includes formal recognition of Native sovereignty and large, permanent, economic support of Native communities. Public meetings in Canada regularly open by acknowledging that they occur on historic lands of Indian nations.

Macdonald is probably not well known outside Canada. Unlike George Washington, Simón Bolivar, Toussaint L’Ouverture, or other founders of New World states, Macdonald was not a military hero. In fact, Canada stands out from all the other states between Patagonia and the 49th parallel for its purely civilian origins. Macdonald was a politician, not a hero. Probably the most famous anecdote about him concerns the time he got so drunk at a political rally that he threw up onstage at an all-candidates’ meeting. He answered complaints about his drinking by mocking his rival of the day: “The people would prefer John A. drunk to George Brown sober!”

Yet it remains a blunt historical fact, to quote Macdonald’s most recent biographer, Richard Gwyn: “No Macdonald, no Canada.”

Back in the 1860s, the idea of stringing together into a single country the British colonies north of the 49th parallel seemed illusory, if not preposterous. It was not just expansion-minded Americans who expected to unite the continent from the North Pole to the Rio Grande under the Stars and Stripes. So did most of Canada’s British overlords, especially after the British tilted a little too closely to the losing side of the U.S. Civil War. The British colonies in North America were so far-flung, more than 3,000 miles from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island. In all this vast territory lived only about 3.5 million people, connected by a few hundred miles of railway line—which was maybe just as well, considering the mutual hostility of the French-speaking minority and the English-speaking majority. Maybe you had to be drunk to believe that any of this could work.

But work it did, from confederation in 1867 through Macdonald’s death in office in 1891 and counting, toward the 154th Canada Day on July 1. Canada has no cities as old as Athens, Berlin, Cairo, Delhi, Dublin, Moscow, Paris, or Rome—but it can claim a continuous legal existence longer than any of the national governments in those cities. Canada has worked thanks in great part to the political institutions and systems Macdonald created, including his cheerful use of patronage as a tool of power, a tradition that flourishes in Canada to this day.

The Canada that Macdonald assembled in 1867 stopped just a little north and west of Lake Superior. The terrain beyond that—what’s now northern Quebec and northern Ontario; almost all of what’s now the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, plus a goodish chunk of Nunavut—was acquired by Macdonald from the privately owned Hudson’s Bay Company subsequent to confederation. Macdonald hoped that he could push a railway through the Hudson’s Bay lands to reach the British settlements on the Pacific and thereby bring them into Canada too. In the process, he also assumed sovereignty over Plains Indian nations already on the verge of catastrophe for reasons that had nothing to do with Macdonald or Canada.

In the early 19th century, an estimated 30 million to 60 million buffalo roamed west of the Mississippi, from West Texas up into Canada. These herds supported Plains Indians populations, who ate their meat and hoisted shelters out of their hides. U.S. railway-building disrupted the habitats of the buffalo. American settlers hunted them almost to extinction. As Canadian authority reached the Great Plains after 1870, it encountered an Indigenous population facing ecological crisis. Crisis turned to starvation in the early 1880s.

In the House of Commons in April 1885, Macdonald offered this explanation of his actions in response to the disaster.

When the Indians are starving, they have been helped, but they have been reduced to one-half and one-quarter rations; but when they fall into a state of destitution we cannot allow them to die for want of food. It is true that Indians so long as they are fed will not work. I have reason to believe that the agents as a whole, and I am sure it is the same with the Commissioner, are doing all they can, by refusing food until the Indians are on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense. The buffalo has disappeared during the past few years. Some few came over this year, and although their arrival relieved the Indians, it was rather sorry, looking to the future, that such was the case, as the Blackfeet, Bloods and Peigana who had settled on reserves at once returned to their nomadic habits and abandoned the settlements. It will occasionally happen that the agents will issue food too liberally … We hope that the Indians will now settle down, but Indians are Indians, and we must submit to frequent disappointments in the way of civilizing them.

In 2018, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation staged a debate over the question of whether Macdonald’s actions and inactions amounted to “genocide.” The accuser charged: “Forced starvation is the intentional deprivation of food necessary for survival. And we say it’s a crime against humanity for a government to carry out a policy of forced starvation against its own people.”

But the famine on the Plains in the 1880s was not set in motion by Macdonald or anyone else in Canadian government. The buffalo had genuinely gone, and not for a season or two, but forever. Something new had to be put in place, and again not for a season or two, but forever.

A generation later, Herbert Hoover and the Commission for Relief in Belgium would invent large-scale, long-term food assistance. That huge undertaking would mobilize the resources of the American economy to feed people displaced by the First World War. Grain and other foodstuffs would be shipped by sea into a region well served by ports, canals, and railways. Nothing like the Hoover effort had ever been attempted in world history—and it still left millions in desperate want.

By contrast, the government of Canada in the 1880s was connected to the West by a single unfinished railway line. From Halifax to Vancouver, the Canadian federal government employed maybe 2,000 people. The government’s presence in the West was upheld by the few hundred troopers of what was not yet called the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Beyond that, Canada had almost zero state capacity in the region of the buffalo crisis. The entire annual budget of Canada in the early 1880s totaled about $30 million in the money of the time. (Adjusting for price inflation, that is significantly about $800 million in modern Canadian money.)

The leading scholarly critic of Macdonald is James Daschuk, of the University of Regina. In a 2013 book, Clearing the Plains, Daschuk describes Macdonald welcoming the opportunity to relocate nomadic Plains Indians into fixed settlements, using food aid as a tool. Yet Daschuk also makes clear that the leading cause of death among the Plains Indians of the 1880s was not starvation, much less deliberate starvation, but the epidemics that followed the first encounters of previously isolated Native populations with new diseases. The Hudson’s Bay Company, then the Canadian government, conducted smallpox-vaccination programs among the Plains Indians beginning as early as the 1830s. But there were no vaccines yet for tuberculosis, diphtheria, and other epidemic killers.

The buffalo crisis only weakened the resistance of already susceptible populations. Food relief could be sent, and it was, although in inadequate amounts and sometimes in poor condition. But what was needed was a new economy for the people of the Plains.

Macdonald habitually referred to Indigenous people as “the original owners of the soil.” Macdonald’s defeated 1885 law to extend voting rights to female property owners would also have enfranchised many Native people. He attempted, also unsuccessfully, to recruit Indigenous people into what would become the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. To advance his hopes of equal citizenship for Native people, Macdonald initiated a plan to teach them farming and industrial skills. A network of residential schools was established, operated by churches. The schools separated children from their families in hope of speeding the acculturation process. They operated in English and French, not Native languages. In Macdonald’s day, attendance was voluntary, but after 1920 it became compulsory.

These schools proved to be a disastrous failure. In 2006, the government of Canada paid $1.9 billion in compensation to surviving graduates of the schools. A scathing investigation, completed in 2015, detailed the psychological and often physical abuse inflicted in the schools. Last month, the harrowing story was dramatized by a terrible new revelation: the discovery of the remains of 215 children and teenagers buried near the residential schools in Kamloops, British Columbia.

It’s not known when the children and teens died, or why, or how. But the stark reality of 215 buried bodies has jolted opinion across Canada. The jagged digits 215 have been splashed on public monuments in angry protest—with memorials to Macdonald the most frequently defaced.

As the person who proposed the schools, Macdonald shares the blame for their grim human consequences. But Macdonald critics slight the fact that the worst wrongs in the schools happened after Macdonald had left this Earth, and could neither be aware of them, nor correct them.

The tragedy of history is that many terrible things happen because of human error, or even the inherent intractability of human problems, not human guilt. The Canadian state of the early 1880s was weak and poor, and only hazily in control of the massive slice of map labeled with its name in the world atlas. Canadian leaders wielded scanty resources and were guided by inadequate information. These unsatisfactory but uncriminal realities have been frothed into a language of “genocide” and “democide” invented in other places to describe the worst atrocities in human history.

In 1967, James Coburn starred in the dark comedy The President’s Analyst. The president of the United States is feeling depressed, so he summons a therapist to help. The therapist instantly becomes the single most important intelligence asset on Earth. He is ensnared in ever more absurd plots to capture and interrogate him. One of the plots is masterminded from Ottawa. The kidnappers explain their actions: They are tired of being unimportant.

Just as an earlier generation of Canadian writers and thinkers sought to repurpose Macdonald as Canada’s substitute for Washington and Lincoln, so some current politicians and journalists now seek to repurpose him as Canada’s Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. Like the analyst’s kidnappers in the movie, they are tired of having unvandalized statues. It’s still mimicry, this time in reverse.

This is not a “reckoning with history.” It’s a refusal to reckon with the actual possibilities open to the people of the past. This is not “moral responsibility.” It’s a flight from responsibility into rituals of self-purification through denunciation and destruction. It is easier to perform outrage than to improve outcomes in education, addiction, and economic development.

What’s happening to Macdonald’s memory in Canada is wrong both in the sense that it’s untrue and in the sense that it’s unjust. Leave Macdonald’s monuments to weather in the respect they deserve, in the parks and squares of the gentle country he founded in his own kindly image.

* This article previously misstated that protesters toppled a statue of Macdonald in Kingston, Ontario. They burnt him in effigy, but the statue was not toppled. It was legally removed in 2021.