Amid the current celebration and accompanying debate of John A. Macdonald’s 200th birthday, a realization emerged about the very nature of Canada: this place doesn’t really exist. Certainly the idea of the country pervades the imaginations of millions of Canadians and there are internationally recognized borders, currency, and so on. But it is increasingly difficult to accept that Canada possesses a cohesive and honest narrative of itself. Can a nation persist in the present without a shared understanding of its past?
The debates about John A. Macdonald’s role in Canadian history are polarizing. The boosters proclaim the first Prime Minister as father of confederation, framer of Canada’s original constitution, founder of the RCMP, and visionary of a country from sea-to-sea. The detractors see him as a villain, starving Nêhiyawak and Dakota in order to take their land, hanging Louis Riel for asserting Métis Nationhood (charged under the British Treason Act), launching residential schools as the solution to the stubborn Indian Problem, promoting a mostly Whites-only Canada.
Yet even this so-called revisionist reading is rationalized. Macdonald was merely a “product of his time” they say. Alternatively the polite Canadian refrain “nobody is perfect” attempts to retrieve him, as if recognizing his faults somehow sanitizes the nationalist urge to toast a ridiculous, arbitrary birthday of a malevolent, racist thief. Strong language, I know. But in his desire to build Canada the man attempted to “clear the plains” (to use historian James Daschuk’s phrase). So what do you expect?
Still the debate goes on and Macdonald is ever the durable figure. I think part of the apparently necessary festivity pivots on the inseparable relationship between the representation of the first prime Minster and the narrative Canadians tell themselves about their origins generally. The accepted story begins with the ancient colonization of Canada, followed by some very bad things, disease and death, etc. But now we enjoy this beautiful, prosperous, and diverse nation, so it was all worth it.
Lumbee legal scholar Robert A. Williams might describe this as a “discourse of conquest” – a tale designed and promulgated to support the rightness of colonization and in the service of human progress. We see it applied to Christopher Columbus, French Jesuits and explorers, American pilgrims, even somewhat playfully with cowboys and Indians. Acutely we see it anew with Macdonald. Implicitly the discourse is about victory of the civilized over the savage and transplanting the legal norms and values of one society over others because it is simply natural.
All of this sanctions the preservation and celebration of the so-called Founding Father despite his horrific deeds. Genuinely questioning Macdonald’s actions might threaten other deeply committed to truths about Canada, like the nature of “discovery”, exploration, treaty-making, land tenure, multiculturalism and justice. Sincerely challenging Macdonald’s legacy might open the door to fundamentally re-examining any shared notion of Canadian progress, Canadian values, and Canadian institutions.
While many are unwilling to cross that uncomfortable threshold, Indigenous writers and activists are forcing the issue, defending their humanity and challenging Macdonald’s. Indeed an irony in the resistance to this discourse of conquest is that some of the descendants of the very people the father of Confederation tried to starve out of the way are now unravelling foundational Canadian narratives, and with it, unravelling any collective sense of belonging.
Or more accurately, they are exposing the truth about Canada: it is a myth.