Sir John A. Macdonald is no Robert E. Lee. But the 19th-century leaders are similar in that they are leading again.
This time, they are serving as the focus of Americans and Canadians squabbling about their history. In the United States, the fights have sparked riots, injuries, and deaths. The fight is gearing up in Canada with Montreal’s much-defaced Macdonald statue being torn down and broken.
(Photo: CBC News)
In the United States, memorials to Lee and other Confederate leaders have been attacked as symbols of white supremacy. The point is valid. Most Confederate statues were erected around 1910 to support Jim Crow segregationist laws with another wave of statues coming in the 1960s to combat the Civil Rights movement. The statues have always had less to do the Civil War and more to do with the war against racial equality.
Sir John A. Macdonald’s legacy is more nuanced and so the statues more complex. He created Canada as the indispensable leader who led the Confederation debates in Charlottetown, Quebec City, and London and guided the creation of our constitution. As our first prime minister, he built the country behind tariff walls and on steel rails with the National Policy and building of the transcontinental railway.
He saved Canada when he stopped Nova Scotia from seceding. He saved us again from threats of American annexation when he purchased Rupert’s Land, kept British Columbia from joining the United States, and then negotiated the Washington Treaty which stopped Britain from giving Canada to the Americans to avoid paying Civil War reparations.
While Macdonald created, built, and saved Canada he was a flawed leader. He ruthlessly exploited Chinese railway workers and later tried to expel them while imposing a prohibitively expensive tax on Chinese immigration. He negotiated with Métis leader Louis Riel to bring Manitoba into Confederation but 15-years later crushed Riel’s Saskatchewan rebellion. He refused to overturn a court’s death sentence and so let Riel hang.
Macdonald thought nothing of taking Indigenous land without consultation or ignoring treaties to take more. He withheld promised food and support from Indigenous nations to pressure them to surrender to reservations and so has been accused of attempted genocide. His government began the first residential schools.
Robert E. Lee and the other Confederate leaders fought for a horrible end. Despite all, Sir John worked for a glorious goal. Macdonald’s image on our money and public monuments and his name on our highways and schools represent our respect for that goal, and not for all he did to pursue it.
And that’s the difference.
We are constantly discussing who we are and who we aspire to be. History’s facts don’t change, but our interpretation of those facts does. History is not a shield to protect ideas, a sword to attack the ideas of others, or a wall to keep us from unpleasant things we’d rather not see. History is a teacher. It is there to teach us about ourselves and to intelligently inform our perpetual, existential, national conversation.
Ironically, that is the point being missed by many at the moment. Since Macdonald’s primary goals were overwhelmingly positive, he should remain celebrated. Because aspects of his means to achieve them were inexcusably appalling, he should be appropriately condemned but used to learn about the crimes that he, and we, committed. We should use him to critically examine how we have grown, atonements due, and the work remaining. What better place for those conversations than public places with monuments bearing plaques briefly explaining aspects of Sir John that both swell our chests and well our tears?
When Macdonald’s statue crashed to the ground in Montreal it represented not an invitation to heal but a demand to ignore – and down that road is not growth but regression.
What better place for our public conversations than public squares. So, let us not scrub Sir John from our public spaces. Instead, let those statues stand and allow history to do its job.
Society rests upon written rules and established understandings. In the United States right now the written and understood are in tragic conflict.
From 1882 to 1968, 3,446 African Americans were lynched. Last week, we saw another one. A white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee against George Floyd’s throat until he lost consciousness and later died. The written law responded. The officer was charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. That makes sense. The protests that are rocking American cities also make sense. The legitimate protesters are not trying to bring attention to what is written but, rather, what is understood.
After 700,000 deaths in a Civil War to determine if all men are really created equal, America’s original sin was vanquished. But the belief that had created slavery – a belief in one race’s inherent superiority – remained. The belief was seen in segregation and Jim Crow. It is seen in practices that still suppress African American votes. The belief was seen in the decades of lynchings and when African Americans are pulled over for “driving while black” or shot while walking home with a bag of skittles, or when jogging, or when they are suffocated while on the ground and handcuffed.
There were and are laws standing against all that. But the laws don’t matter. What matters is the underlying understanding. Too many white people and white cops understand that unless there’s a video, they can get away with harassment, assault, and even murder. Too many African American parents understand the need to teach their children to cower, avoid eye contact, and assume the worst in all encounters with white people to keep from being arrested, beaten, or killed. Too many white people think all of that is just fine and too many African Americans think it will never change.
All those understandings violate a bigger understanding. The notion of a Social Contract was first expressed by French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau in 1762. He argued that we all surrender a little of our rights to live in a society that can then protect our essential rights. The Social Contract stipulates, among other things, that if I work hard and live right I can earn a good living and if I obey laws the police won’t bother me.
But what happens if the Social Contract is broken? What if you work hard and live right but the system is stacked in such a way that you still can’t make a decent living? What happens if you obey laws but police and the ignorant and intolerant harass you anyway? What happens if you live in a society where everyone simply understands that the way you are treated every day and the opportunities available to you depend primarily on your race, class, ethnicity, gender, or how long your family’s been here? If all that and more becomes part of what is simply understood, the written laws stand but the Social Contract collapses.
Rousseau wrote that laws are binding only when supported by the peoples’ general will. If the Social Contract dies, that will dies with it. The pandemic tore one part of the Social Contract and the economic collapse ripped another. The recent killings of African Americans, after years of similar murders, left it in shreds. And so, we have Minneapolis and 40 other cities in flames.
We Canadians have our own original sin – the treatment of Indigenous peoples. We have our own less flagrant but equally virulent racism. We can’t be smug.
Thoughtful Americans and Canadians alike should listen to those advocating a broad national conversation not about changing laws but righting systemic economic injustice, racism, and bigotry. We should listen to and support those seeking a restored Social Contract based not on new laws but new foundational understandings. After all, we know that changing laws is easy while changing minds is hard but, in the end, it is the only way to clear the tracks, douse the flames, and save our souls.
Thomas Scott grew up poor. His parents were Protestant Irish tenant farmers so he would have understood the history of Protestants struggling against the power and enmity of Ireland’s Catholic majority and of the famine, disease, and economic hardships that gripped the country during his childhood and teenage years. In 1863, at age 21, the six-foot-two, ruggedly handsome Scott joined the wave of those leaving Ireland. He arrived in Canada West, what is now Ontario, and settled near Belleville. Scott worked as a labourer and joined Sterling’s 49th Hastings Battalion of Rifles. He also joined the powerful anti-Catholic Orange Lodge.
Seeking greater opportunities, Scott travelled west. In the spring of 1869, he arrived by stagecoach in the Red River Settlement, at the junction of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers, at what is now Winnipeg, Manitoba. It was home to about 5,000 descendants of French explorers and fur traders who had wed Indigenous women. Most Métis were Catholic and French-speaking and many were Protestant and English speaking. A growing number of Protestant, English-speaking Canadians, like Scott, were also moving to Red River.
The Red River Settlement was part of an expansive region called Rupert’s Land that had been owned by the Hudson Bay Company. In March 1869, just before Scott’s arrival, it had been sold to the British crown with the intent to sell it to the two-year-old Dominion of Canada. The Canadian purchase would not be official until December 1. That nine-month interval created confusion regarding who owned the land and governed its people and added to the resentment among those at Red River that they had not been consulted about the sale. Racial, religious, and ethnic tensions were made worse by the belief that the sale would spark an influx of even more English Protestants from Ontario. The settlement was further split because some people wanted to join Canada, others wanted independence, while others hoped Red River would become a British colony.
Upon his arrival, Scott joined a construction crew building the Dawson Road between Red River and Fort William. In August, it was discovered that the project’s superintendent and paymaster, John A. Snow, had been underpaying the workers. Scott led a gang that dragged Snow to the river and threatened to toss him in. In November, Scott was charged with assault, fined £4, and fired. Scott found work as a labourer and bartender and became known for fighting, drinking, and loudly stating his anti-Catholic, anti- Métis views.
While Scott was working on the Dawson Road, a Canadian survey crew had arrived near the Red River Settlement. They had ignored current land ownership titles and property lines. The Métis quite rightly insisted that until the December 1 ownership transfer, the crew had no official status and were simply trespassers. The Métis spokesperson was a 25-year-old charismatic, fluently bilingual, Louis Riel who had just returned home from Montreal where he had studied to become a priest. Supported by armed men, Riel dramatically placed his foot on the surveying chain and ordered the crew to leave. Its leader, William McDougal, retreated and took his men to nearby Pembina.
The Métis took Upper Fort Garry, the Hudson Bay Company’s post in Red River, and formed a provisional government called the Métis National Committee. Riel was its secretary. On December 1, a frustrated McDougall led his men back to the Red River Settlement but armed Métis, this time acting on behalf of their government, stopped him again.
Meanwhile, the trouble-making Scott had met the 29-year-old doctor and entrepreneur John Christian Shultz. Shultz led the Canadian Party which was a small group of English Protestants who wished to see Red River annexed by Canada and led by English Protestants. In early December, 67 Canadian Party adherents gathered at Shultz’s warehouse in Lower Fort Garry to plan an attack on the Métis government.
A newly constituted provisional government called the Provisional Government of the Métis Nation had been formed with Riel as president. On December 7, Riel had Shultz and his followers arrested and detained. Scott had not been at the warehouse but upon hearing of the arrests he met with Riel and demanded that the prisoners be freed. When the soft-spoken Riel refused, Scott became belligerent, yelled racist insults, and so was arrested. He continued his tirades while under confinement, threatening at one point to shoot Riel.
On January 9, Scott and twelve others escaped. He and fellow prisoner Charles Mair found snowshoes and somehow walked 103 km through a howling blizzard to Portage la Prairie. A month later, still suffering the effects of frostbite, Scott joined Canadian Major Charles Arkoll Boulton and about 60 others who marched through cold and snow, intent on capturing Upper Fort Garry, freeing the prisoners, and overthrowing Riel. They were joined along the way by another 100 men armed with muskets and clubs. Upon their arrival, they learned that Riel had already released the prisoners. While the news led many to turn back, Boulton, Scott, and 45 others continued to insist on Riel’s ouster. Riel had them arrested.
A military council determined that Boulton was guilty of treason and should be executed. After appeals from church leaders and Donald Smith, the commissioner from Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s government, Riel waived the sentence. The incident, and Riel’s mercy led to even broader support among Red River’s disparate groups for the provisional government.
Meanwhile, the still imprisoned Thomas Scott had become a nuisance. He complained about conditions and constantly shouted violent threats and racist insults at his Métis guards. They chained his feet and hands but he persisted. On February 28, after striking a guard, two other guards dragged Scott outside and began beating him until a member of Riel’s government, who happened to be passing by, intervened. Riel visited Scott and, speaking through a hole in the door, tried to calm the man but Scott merely shouted insults.
On March 3, Scott was brought before a six-man council and charged with insubordination and treason. He was not allowed a lawyer and, because he spoke no French, understood none of the evidence brought against him. Witnesses were not cross-examined. Only at the trial’s conclusion did Riel address Scott in English and summarize what had happened. One member of the council voted for acquittal and another for banishment but four declared Scott guilty and said he should be executed by firing squad.
A minister, a priest, and Donald Smith asked Riel to spare Scott’s life but he refused. Riel believed that the trial and Scott’s execution would demonstrate the legitimate power of his government to the people of Red River and, as he said to Smith, “We must make Canada respect us.”
At one o’clock the next day, March 4, 1870, Scott’s hands were tied behind his back and he was escorted from his cell to the courtyard outside. With Riel watching, Scott knelt in the snow and a white cloth was tied to cover his eyes. He shouted, “This is horrible. This is cold-blooded murder.” Six Métis men raised their muskets but upon hearing the order to fire only three shots rang out. Scott was hit twice and crumpled to the ground but was still alive. François Guillemette, a member of the firing squad, stepped forward, withdrew his revolver, and delivered the coup de grâce, ending Scott’s life.
French-speaking Quebecers had rallied to Riel’s side as a protector of French-Catholic rights. But with Scott’s execution, many in Ontario, spurred by propaganda spread by Dr. Shultz, who had returned to his native province and was supported by the Orange Lodge, demanded that Riel be arrested for Scott’s murder. Prime Minister Macdonald had welcomed representatives from Red River and agreed with nearly all of Riel’s terms; that Manitoba should be created as a province, there be guaranteed protection for Métis land, the Catholic religion, and French language, and that treaties be negotiated with Indigenous nations. The raging controversy around Scott’s death did not change Macdonald’s mind about Manitoba’s creation but to assuage Ontario’s anger he dispatched 1,200 men to Red River, comprised of a British battalion and two Canadian militia battalions. By the time they arrived, Riel had fled to the United States.
Riel’s part in Scott’s execution had destroyed his ability to take a legal, leadership role in Canadian politics. In July 1870, Manitoba became a province largely under the terms he had proposed and the people of the new province elected him as their Member of Parliament three times. However, denounced as Scott’s murderer, Ontario Orangemen had placed a $5,000 bounty on his head and so a fear of arrest or assassination made him unable to take his seat.
Fifteen years later, Riel returned from his American exile to lead Saskatchewan’s Métis in their fighting for fair treatment by the Canadian government. Riel’s return led Ontario’s Protestant majority to renew their demand that he be arrested for Scott’s murder. The 1885 Northwest Rebellion was crushed, Riel was arrested and charged with high treason. Scott’s execution played a significant part in the jury’s determination of Riel’s guilt, its death sentence, and in Macdonald’s allowing that sentence to be carried out.
Rumours persist over what happened to Scott’s body. Some claim it was thrown into the river and others that it was buried in an unmarked grave or under a building. It has never been found. More importantly, echoes of the gunfire that ended Scott’s life still reverberate through Canada’s culture as bitter and brittle emotions still inform many of our political debates.
This was written for the Canadian Encyclopedia, on line resource that I highly recommend. If you enjoyed the column, please share it with others and consider checking my other work at http://www.johnboyko.com
Sir John A. Macdonald is no Robert E. Lee. But the 19th-century leaders are similar in that they are leading again.
This time, they are serving as the focus of Americans and Canadians squabbling about their history. In the United States, the fights have sparked riots, injuries and a death. The fight is gearing up in Canada with an Ontario teacher’s union demanding that Sir John A. Macdonald Elementary School change its name.
In the United States, memorials to Lee and other Confederate leaders are being attacked as symbols of white supremacy – and the point is valid. Southern states seceded and fought the Civil War primarily to maintain slavery.
Most of the Confederate statues erected and most of what’s named after Confederate leaders were done to celebrate the legitimacy of that reprehensible goal; they appeared around 1910 to support Jim Crow segregationist laws and in the 1960s to combat the civil rights movement.
The statues should come down. The names should be changed.
Sir John A. Macdonald’s legacy is more nuanced. He was the indispensable leader who led the Confederation debates in Charlottetown, Quebec City, and London and guided the creation of our constitution. He was our first prime minister and built the country behind tariff walls and on steel rails with the National Policy and building of the transcontinental railway.
He saved Canada when he stopped Nova Scotia from seceding. He saved us from threats of American annexation when he purchased Rupert’s Land, kept British Columbia from joining the United States and negotiated the Washington Treaty in which Britain was considering giving Canada to the Americans to avoid paying Civil War reparations. He kept us united by having French and English work together and attempted to grant women the right to vote.
In American terms, Macdonald is our Jefferson, Washington and Madison.
However, Macdonald also ruthlessly exploited Chinese railway workers and later tried to expel them while imposing a prohibitively expensive tax on Chinese immigration. He negotiated with Métis leader Louis Riel to bring Manitoba into Confederation but then crushed Riel’s Saskatchewan rebellion.
Macdonald thought nothing of taking Indigenous land without consultation or ignoring treaties to take more. He withheld promised food and support from Indigenous nations to pressure them to surrender to reservations.
Lee fought for a horrible end. Macdonald worked for a remarkable goal. Macdonald’s image on our money and public monuments and his name on our highways and schools represent our respect for that goal, and not for all he did to pursue it.
And that is the difference.
We are constantly discussing who we are and who we aspire to be. History’s facts don’t change, but our interpretation of those facts does. History is not a shield to protect ideas or a sword to attack the ideas of others or a fence to keep us from unpleasant things we’d rather not see. History is a teacher.
It is there to teach us about ourselves and to intelligently inform our existential, national conversation.
Ironically, that is the point missed by members of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario who asked school boards to rename schools bearing the name of our first prime minister. Since Macdonald’s primary goals were overwhelmingly positive, he should remain celebrated. Because aspects of his means to achieve them were inexcusably appalling, he should be used to teach and learn about crimes that he and we committed.
We should use them to critically examine how we have grown, atonements due and work remaining. What better place for those conversations than public places with monuments bearing plaques briefly explaining aspects of Sir John that swell our chests or well our tears?
What better place for those conversations than schools, especially those bearing his name. So, let us not scrub Sir John from our public spaces, instead, let history to do its job.
This column originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen and was the subject of my appearances on CTV television’s Your Morning and CBC Radio’s The Current. I would appreciate your comments on this latest conversation about who we are.