Portrait of Sir John A. Macdonald (U.S. Library of Congress)

LETTER: Sir John A. Macdonald’s role in residential schools

Canada’s first prime minister was progressive for his time

Re: Victoria to remove Sir John A. Macdonald statue from city hall

An open letter to Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps and council:

Hearing of council’s action to remove the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald, I was surprised that one would even exist in Victoria. The city should attribute its creation more to Sir James Douglas and the Lekwungen peoples, the Songhees and the Esquimalt Nations, as Douglas was the Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company when Fort Albert (later to be called Fort Victoria) was built back in 1843.

As a historian of Macdonald, I am fully aware of his role with First Nations, starting with the removal of Mississauga First Nations people from what is now the Fort York site and the forced movement of some of them to land just west of Kingston, something young Macdonald learned about while going to grammar school in the 1820s. That was his introduction to how society at the time felt that First Nations should be dealt with.

As he grew up and became a lawyer and then a politician in the Province of Canada and then the country itself, he was in a society that, unfortunately, did not pay the respect to First Nations that they should have. Hence, history has only recorded the more ‘promoted’ aspects of what has happened in our past as it has done with him and many others.

As for the residential school system and its development, that must be attributed to Edgar Dewdney moreso than Sir John. It seems that Sir John must take the heat for the residential schools phenomenon that was really the creation of Anglican, Methodist, and Roman Catholic institutions in Upper Canada (Ontario).

One has to wonder what actions are being taken regarding reconciliation that address the roles of the various churches that wanted to change the mindset of so many First Nations throughout the country, making them into ‘white men’.

There could even be a school of thought that would like to have the name ‘Victoria’ changed to ‘Camosun’, which would much further respect the role of the three First Nations in the area that is now encompassed by the city. But seeing that Sir John was the Prime Minister at the time, it always seems that the most senior person in governance must take responsibility for the decisions made by the legislative body of which that person is the ‘leader’.

Most people are benignly ignorant of Sir John’s complete legacy. That included considering extending the franchise to women and various ethnic groups that were minorities in what was quickly becoming a neo-European society, decades before the franchise was so extended, due to the myopic view of the male dominated society at the time.

I trust that council will remove the statue carefully, rather than like some instances in the southern U.S. states.

Graham Evan MacDonell, Scottish-Canadian Genealogical Research Services, Abbotsford

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