, 08.20.2018 05:57 AM

Column: Sir John A. was a racist

BOSTON – What never moves and never talks, but is too often racist?

Statues, of course. They’re lifeless. Down here in America, but also back home in Canada.

Statues paying tributes to notorious historical racists like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are still found across the Southern U.S. – and someone even erected one honouring Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first leader of the Ku Klux Klan, just outside Nashville.

Here in Boston, the famous Faneuil Hall is named after an infamous slave trader. And in the city’s North End, there’s a Christopher Columbus statue – which pays homage to a man who also traded in slaves.

In 1492, upon arriving in the Caribbean and on his way to North America, Columbus was greeted as a demi-god by the native Arawak people. By 1495, on a return trip, Columbus was energetically committing acts of genocide against the Arawaks. They no longer exist as a people.

Debates have been raging about such statues for years, but have intensified in the age of the Racist-in-Chief, Donald Trump. Advocates for the racist statues say that these men are part of our history, and we should not tamper with history.

Opponents of these racist statues state, correctly, that such monuments are painful reminders of slavery, violence and genocide. They, we, argue that we should not ever celebrate hatred. They, we, echo the words of former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, who said such monuments “rewrite history to hide the truth [and] purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.”

But the fans of racist statues are undeterred. Even up in Canada, where we regularly (and falsely) claim to be a kinder, gentler and less-racist nation than the United States, a controversy has grown around a certain statue of Sir John A. Macdonald.

The City of Victoria recently decided to remove a Macdonald statue on the steps at city hall. Ontario’s government then wrote them a letter, offering to take the statue Victoria that didn’t want. Ontario Tourism Minister Sylvia Jones told the Legislature that “people are complicated, but there is no doubt that 125 years after his death, our first prime minister stands as an important Canadian within the creation of our country.”

And that, certainly, is true. Macdonald is important, and he was “complicated.” But – knowing what we now know about him – he is not a man we should be celebrating like we once did. Statues and monuments should not be built in his honour.

If you disagree, a challenge. Imagine, for a moment, you are a First Nations person – or imagine that you are, like me, father to an indigenous girl. Just imagine that. Then read these words.

Here’s what he said in 1879: “When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages. He is simply a savage who can read and write. 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.”

And here’s what he said in 1885: “…we have been pampering and coaxing the Indians; [but] we must take a new course, we must vindicate the position of the white man, we must teach the Indians what law is.”

Also in 1885: “I have not hesitated to tell this House, again and again, that we could not always hope to maintain peace with the Indians; that the savage was still a savage, and that until he ceased to be savage, we were always in danger of a collision, in danger of war, in danger of an outbreak.”

A couple years later, 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.”

And, finally, this in 1884, when describing potlaches, the joyful indigenous gatherings held to celebrate births, deaths, adoptions, weddings: “…celebrating the ‘potlatch’ is a misdemeanor. This Indian festival is debauchery of the worst kind, and the departmental officers and all clergymen unite in affirming that it is absolutely necessary to put this practice down.”

And “put them down” Sir John A. did. He gave Canada’s First Nations – the ones who were here first – assimilation, brutality and genocidal residential school. That’s what he gave them, and us.

There therefore should be no further statues in his honour. There should be no new schools bearing his name. There should be more of us doing what Victoria has done.

Instead, let’s build monuments to those historical figures who were not violent racists.

Because statues, as lifeless as they are, can still hurt the living.


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    Peter says:

    If your definition of racist includes anyone who thought the primary objective of aboriginal policy should be to “help” native peoples assimilate into the cultural mainstream, you aren’t going to be putting up a lot of statues of public figures from the second half of the 19th century, or the first half of the 20th for that matter.

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    Robert White says:

    Beautifully stated, Warren. Moreover, I suspect that there will be many disgruntled historians on both sides of the border that will take issue with the stance you have taken but someone has to take that stance eventually.

    I’m learning more here than I did in 20 years with the PC Party. And history needs updating every once in a while so I agree with your revision in light of the harms our history has exposed to date. It was wrong for Macdonald to dehumanize First Nations people plain and simple. Not too much to think about when we evidence this type of historicity in our contemporary midst.

    As ‘man on the omnibus’ your statements speak for most of us in CANADA.


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    RKJ says:

    Our family knew a native woman (has since passed away) who had her children taken from her. They were sent to residential schools. I can only assume many of those who conducted the abductions are still living.

    Regardless of who was at fault (appears to be an entire political class and Canadian society), a great crime was committed against native Canadians. Many of these crimes were committed in our lifetimes and cannot be brushed away as being “in the foggy past”.

    Recognizing a crime is only the beginning of seeking to make right what can’t be made right for so many. My guess is the starting point is to listen – native Canadians have had so many speaking at them rather than listening to them.

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    WestGuy says:

    What comes around goes around. People need to understand that once the country has gotten rid of all the statues they demanded be removed, they’ll start going after the statues that they think should be protected. And they’ll use your own arguments against you to accomplish it.
    You say “let’s build monuments to those historical figures who were not violent racists.” I say you’d be hard pressed to find a historical figure that doesn’t have a dark side, especially when you apply moral relativism.

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    Sean says:

    I have a lot of mixed feelings about this. Firstly, I don’t think we should equate Sir John A MacDonald statues with those of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Robert E. Lee was leading a violent, traitorous rebellion. John A., while clearly racist, is properly credited for finding compromise between English, Scottish, Irish and French populations which was no small feat. Canadian notions of tolerance, which slowly evolved towards multiculturalism, emanate from those early moments of nationhood. I appreciate Warren’s suggestion of trying to imagine what it is like for First Nations people to see these statues in public parks, but I just can’t. That experience is to removed from my own. The only thing remotely similar for me is a street named after a British Lord who may have been partially responsible for my ancestors being pushed off their land about 150 years ago. Am I supposed to be angry about that? My experience is of course very different than that of many First Nation’s people. I can’t trace multi-generational poverty to that moment in history… My ancestors did OK, eventually. Also, I don’t think using John A. MacDonald as a target is doing any justice to the issues. All of Canada at the time was at fault, not just one man. I think the issue is that we need to understand historical figures as being just as flawed as the rest of their contemporaries. Churchill was also unquestionably racist. Are we demanding that all of his statues be torn down? No, because we accept that he was a flawed human being, a product of his time, just as Sir John A MacDonald was.

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      The Doctor says:

      It gets even more complicated than that. Churchill is a perfect example. With the aid of today’s 20-20 hindsight, Churchill was dead right about Hitler, while being dead wrong about India. Hitler was arguably the most horrible racist in history, and Churchill very early on saw Hitler for the menace he was and led the fight against him, even in the early days when that wasn’t a popular position.

      So which Churchill do we remember? The difficulty here is applying a standard of universal perfection, correctness and farsightedness to historical figures.

      I’d feel a lot better about all of this if we were applying these statute removals in some sort of principled, consistent way, but that’s certainly not what’s happening. It happens in a totally ad hoc way, simply because this or that group in this or that particular place raises a stink about this or that particular statue.

      I notice that John A. graces the 10 dollar bill. That’s far more ubiquitous than some now-removed statue in Victoria. Why hasn’t his baleful visage been removed?

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        Robert White says:

        I asked the PMO to remove the Bank of CANADA symbolism from our currency last week due to their public persona in light of their private ownership and historical oppression of all Canadians. Removing Sir John A. from our currency should be occurring after they remove the Bank of CANADA symbolism off of our currency first.

        After all, I asked first, eh.


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    Sam says:

    “Challenge” accepted.

    I am aboriginal, I’m very familiar with the residential school system and what it did, and I’ve read all of Sir John A’s statements.

    The removal of this statue is still wrong.

    As I implied in an earlier thread on this, removing statues of people because we’re applying today’s standards to what someone said over a century ago is nothing short of an Orwellian attempt at sanitizing and rewriting history.

    To many aboriginal folks it’ll seem like an attempt at some sort of revenge or comeuppance made on our behalf by self loathing paternalistic “white folks” trying to make themselves feel better about the history they insist they feel so bad about.

    It does nothing to change that history, it does nothing to help, it does nothing other than make a relatively small number of people feel better because they “did something”. That this “something” will do nothing, nada, sweet f*ck all to help aboriginal people matters not, they feel better because of this virtuous grand gesture, and that’s what is important here. If anything, it will inflame those among us that would sooner bitch and moan about the past than get on with the future.

    I watched a fellow aboriginal, when asked what we would like to see happen during an industry consultation, respond with “I want all of you people to get back on boats and go back to Europe” before he got back to reading his smart phone. Stupid response? You bet. Unfortunately there’s a mindset within our community that is more interested in combative confrontation than mutually beneficial solutions. The fact that such strategies in the past have typically resulted in palms being greased both overtly and covertly is not a small factor here.

    This is not righting any wrongs, it’s not going to help native people. In short, other than making some peoples perceived self importance levels elevate, it does nothing at all.

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      The Doctor says:

      You’re right that our collective energies would be much better spent on improving drinking water, housing and education etc.

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      Fred from BC says:

      Best post of the week, Sam. Well said…

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      Peter says:

      Wow. You, Sir, are a courageous man. You have described what is in the minds of many non-natives who dare not express them for fear of being accused of lack of empathy and swarmed by voices dismissing them as stupid angry old white guys. I don’t imagine you get a lot of standing ovations in your community either. I’m guessing one so adept as you are at skewering the pretensions of both sides also has a keen eye for the comedic potential of the ambiguities of imperial adventures and history, so in thanks for your comment, I offer you this for a few moments of wicked enjoyment.

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        Sam says:

        Thanks for the props.

        There’s quite a few like me in the band I belong to, as there is in other bands too. Leadership of my band goes back and forth from people with views similar to mine (dare I say “progressive” ?) to those that like to remain in perpetual victim-hood. I emphasize with them mostly, getting out of the cycle of entitlement & shut-up money is hard to do.

        Junior T set the peoples voices back big time by repealing the accountability act, but it made the corrupt Chiefs happy, who still have a large segment of the non native population thinking that they speak for all natives.

        If you ever need a reminder just how out of touch junior is with real native folk, just watch his comment about canoe storage again.

        ps. thanks for the link, one of the best classics of all time IMHO

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          Peter says:

          shut-up money

          Love it. I wonder whether you have any thoughts on “shut-up ceremonies”. You know, they’re when our politicians meet with some chiefs and elders with lots of media in attendance. In sombre, almost funereal, tones they confess on behalf of the nation to the most execrable sins and declare everything that was ever done pursuant to aboriginal policy to have been cruel, destructive and catastrophic. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can be said in defence of any of it. They lament not being able to change it, but they have seen the light and promise, promise, promise to work tirelessly (together with you, of course) to reverse it all and build a future where all our children can live in equality, prosperity and mutual respect. Then, proper rites of contrition and penance having been performed, they go out and forget all about it, tell us we live in the greatest country in the world and harangue countries like Saudi Arabia for their lack of Canadian values.

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            Robert White says:

            I can envision Harper in traditional headdress of First Nations weeping crocodile tears as I read your comment. Frankly, I’m glad I read your words given the understanding they convey.


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      Robert White says:

      Macdonald was undoubtedly NOT an architect of racism but he sure as hell is a progenitor of it after all these years of being carved in stone & up-in-our face with his foul stinking mouth.


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    Steve T says:

    As others above have said, we seem to love imposing black/white moral relativism on people in the past. If they weren’t perfect, they were evil. Every generation needs to have its villains, to make itself feel superior.

    Many groups, of all races and genders, conducted actions that would not be considered massive human rights violations (if not outright crimes) these days. People should be judged based on their actions in relation to the (approximate) times in which they lived; not 150 years after.

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      Steve T says:

      ** would ** be considered massive human rights violations

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    Angel Martin says:

    “There should be more of us doing what Victoria has done.”

    This is like ISIS going into museums and smashing statues which are “un-Islamic”.

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      PK says:

      The statues are symbols, not history.

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      Fred from BC says:

      And before them, the Taliban were doing exactly the same thing, destroying centuries-old monuments and artifacts as they came across them.

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    PK says:

    The statues were symbolic at their inception as a means to communicate a sense of nationalism, a national myth, playing to jingoistic principles. Now they have come to define, beyond their mythology, the tragedy of the time, the people excluded, the folks enslaved, the people marginalized, and the aftermath of that abuse. So defending a national myth isn’t history, and for the statues to be of historic, rather than mythological importance they’d have to be updated to include additional monuments and a more accurate reading of history.

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      Fred from BC says:

      You twisted that little bit of logic right to the breaking point.

      So you want us to go right ahead and “update” those many, many statues, then; maybe put giant 10,000 word plaques beside each one so people get the full, true story, right? I’m sure they’ll stand there and read the whole thing if they’re interested enough.

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    Ronald O'Dowd says:


    I’ve read and contemplated all of the above. But in the final analysis, for example, Nuremberg is STILL Nuremberg, whether looking through the lense of the 40s or today.

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    Pedant says:

    It is known that PET harboured some rather troubling opinions during the 1930s and 40s. Should Montreal rename its airport?

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      The Doctor says:

      Nice one.

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        Fred from BC says:

        Yeah, that infamous Nazi helmet stunt? Classic Trudeau…:)

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    Sean says:

    Pierre Trudeau was a Nazi
    Adam Vaughan is an asshole
    Justin Trudeau has people wondering if Canadians are too dumb to survive
    Warren Kinsella is a Hot Nasty
    John Tory is a decent man
    Trump is a garden variety psychopath
    And none of this has anything to do with the article 🙁

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