Monday, January 12, 2015

January 11th: 200th anniversary of birth of first Canadian prime minister

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of the first Canadian Prime Minister John A. Macdonald at the City Hall in Kingston Ontario.

Harper told the assembled crowd of dignitaries that what you do is more important than where you are from of who you know. The event was non-partisan with former Liberal prime minister John Turner at the event. However, Harper's remarks about it not mattering who you are or where you are from might possibly have been a subtle dig at Liberal leader Justin Trudeau whose name has a high profile in Canada as his father Pierre Trudeau was himself a former Prime Minister of Canada. Harper claimed that Macdonald produced much good though little was expected of him. He also praised Macdonald for his vision and leadership, but did acknowledge that he was at times a heavy drinker. Harper avoided the large media group at the event and would not take any questions from reporters. 
 One of the questions that might have been asked of Harper is what he thought of Macdonald's attitude towards aboriginal peoples and Chinese immigrants. Doug Cuthand resident of Saskatoon, a journalist but also a trustee and economic board member on his home reserve, the Little PIne First Nation notes: He was the Father of Confederation, the architect of Canada, the guy who pushed for the treaties our forefathers signed and, oh yes, he also hung Louis Riel, starved our people onto reserves and pushed for the railway that changed the West forever.  
Macdonald also began the infamous residential school system. While most authorities gave up on civilizing aboriginal adults, they thought that if brought up properly in residential schools away from their parents and the influence of the wigwam, aboriginal children could be molded into civilized persons who would fit well into the dominant culture. The Davin report which was the basis for the residential system can be found here. The purpose of the system was to take the Indian out of the child. This was to be accomplished by taking children away from their parents and put in schools run by churches. The program is described here. Many children were subject to abuse. Often conditions in many cases were so unhealthy that students literally did not survive: In 1909, Dr. Peter Bryce, general medical superintendent for the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA), reported to the department that between 1894 and 1908, mortality rates at some residential schools in Western Canada ranged from 30% to 60% over five years (that is, five years after entry, 30% to 60% of students had died, or 6–12% per annum). These statistics did not become public until 1922, when Bryce, who was no longer working for the government, published The Story of a National Crime: Being a Record of the Health Conditions of the Indians of Canada from 1904 to 1921. In particular, he alleged that the high mortality rates could have been avoided if healthy children had not been exposed to children with tuberculosis. 
Macdonald also express racist opinions about Chinese immigrants. In 1887 after the first of many anti-Chinese riots in Vancouver, Macdonald rose in the House of Commons to propose measures to keep out the Chinese: The Chinese took white jobs, he said. The Chinese would breed a “mongrel” race in British Columbia and threaten the “Aryan” character of the Dominion. Altogether, the prospect of having white working classes living alongside Chinese could lead only to “evil.” In an aside Macdonald said that he was was supporting the policy mainly because most Canadians wanted things that way. In 1867 blacks were banned from Toronto hotels and many in British Columbia saw Asians as a threat to "racial purity." 
 Defenders of Macdonald point out that his views on racial issues were in line with those of his constituents. Richard Gwyn, who wrote a biography on Macdonald, claims that Macdonald is being used as a scapegoat noting that Canadians collectively made "mistakes" as well as Macdonald. Translated I presume he means that not only Macdonald but the majority of Canadians took the same racist views of the Chinese and aboriginals. Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the Liberal successor to Macdonald, boosted the Chinese head tax to $500 in 1903. Laurier also said that it was fine to take land from "savage nations" as long as there was adequate compensation and that a Canada ruled by natives would "forever have remained barren and unproductive, but which under civilised rule would afford homes and happiness to teeming millions." While the consequences may have been as he claims we will never know what the situation would have been under native rule since Canadian authorities made sure that the natives never had the chance to rule. In spite of his racism with respect to aboriginals, Macdonald's views were in some respects "progressive" in relation to aboriginal rights. For example, he considered that aboriginals did have some rights to their land that had to be extinguished through treaties. Many politicians thought aboriginal land was free for the taking since they never had title. 
Macdonald was also typical of many politicians in that he was closely connected with business interests and in Canada at the time often railroad interests. He was accused of taking bribes in the Pacific Scandal as private interests tried to influence the awarding of a nation rail contract: The Montreal capitalist Sir Hugh Allan, with his syndicate Canada Pacific Railway Company, sought the potentially lucrative charter for the project. The problem lay in that Allan and Sir John A. Macdonald highly, and secretly, were in cahoots with American financiers such as George W. McMullen and Jay Cooke, men who were deeply interested in the rival American undertaking, the Northern Pacific Railroad. 
 Macdonald was also notorious for his drinking binges.In colonial politics however drinking was part of the political scene: Colonial politics, in particular, centred around drinking. Political meetings were held in saloons, political parties used them as their headquarters and during elections they often doubled as voting places. Macdonald's behavior often tested the patience of his friends and allies. He could become belligerent when drunk at dinner parties. He would suddenly disappear for days as he went on binges. He would show up for parliament barely able to talk. The appended video gives an appropriately sanitized history of Macdonald's career although it does mention the Pacitic Scandal and his drinking. There is no hint of his racist poliicies.

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