Sir John A. Macdonald Versus the Historically Challenged

Robert MacBain
September 2, 2017
Historically illiterate vandals defaced a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald in downtown Charlottetown. They think Macdonald was the architect of residential schools. But as Robert MacBain points out, church-run residential schools were established decades before Macdonald became Canada’s first prime minister.

Sir John A. Macdonald Versus the Historically Challenged

Robert MacBain
September 2, 2017
Historically illiterate vandals defaced a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald in downtown Charlottetown. They think Macdonald was the architect of residential schools. But as Robert MacBain points out, church-run residential schools were established decades before Macdonald became Canada’s first prime minister.
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As has been widely reported, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario passed a motion at their annual convention on August 24 calling for Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s name to be removed from elementary schools across Ontario because of his association with the Indian residential schools. But in accusing our founding prime minister of being the “architect of genocide against Indigenous Peoples”, the people we pay to teach our children have demonstrated an appalling lack of knowledge about our country’s history.

If the teachers were better educated, they would know that church-run residential schools for Aboriginal children were established decades before Macdonald became Canada’s first prime minister, that neither Macdonald’s nor any other Canadian government had effective control over the way the churches operated the schools, and that two-thirds of all school-age aboriginal children never set foot inside an Indian residential school. And they would further know that the post-Confederation schools were established at the request of the chiefs of the bands living between Thunder Bay and the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains who entered into treaties with the new Dominion of Canada between 1871 and 1921.

Residential schools before Macdonald

The Methodists were operating 11 schools for Aboriginal children in southern Ontario when Macdonald was just a lad of 15. Ojibways who had converted to Christianity promoted the church-run residential schools as a means of rescuing children from the deplorable conditions altogether too many of them were living in, mainly because of widespread drunkenness in many Ojibway communities.

Thirty-three years before Macdonald became Canada’s first prime minister, the New England Company opened a residential school at the Six Nations of the Grand River near Brantford, Ontario. And 18 years before he became prime minister, Governor General James Bruce Elgin laid the cornerstone for the residential school at Muncey, Ontario.

The chiefs of the Muncey, Ojibway and Oneida bands, along with more than 500 of their members attended that event. As reported by the Christian Guardian, “A deep interest was manifestly felt by the great body of Christianized Indians assembled for the occasion.” Ojibway missionary Peter Jones translated the addresses – including that of Governor General Elgin (after whom the school was named) – and Methodist preacher John Sunday “closed the services by prayer in the Ojibwa language.”

Even after Confederation, and certainly in Macdonald’s time, Ottawa was hardly the “architect” of residential schools, let alone of the “genocide” alleged to have occurred in them. This from the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: “Principals resented government attempts to exert control over the way they ran their schools.” The report also states: “Government officials were frustrated by the fact that they could not control how the per capita grant money was spent.”

As late as 1953, according to the TRC, Ottawa introduced new regulations in “an attempt by Indian Affairs to exert control over the schools.” In 1957, the Oblates added grades Nine and Ten to the McIntosh school in northwestern Ontario rather than transferring the students to a public school in Kenora as recommended by Indian Affairs. “The department’s recommendation to transfer the students was ignored,” the TRC’s report states, “much to the astonishment of the local Indian agent.”

In a letter to the Secretary of the Treasury Board dated August 16, 1957, Deputy Minister Laval Fortier bemoaned the federal government’s lack of control over the church-run schools for Aboriginal children it was funding. Fortier complained there was no uniformity in the standards maintained in the schools such as the quality of management and operational staff, quantity and quality of food and clothing supplied to the pupils and the general upkeep of facilities.

He described the funding arrangement as “a system of making outright donations to the religious denominations, with the [school] principal having unlimited control over the manner in which these funds are expended. In some instances the principals are not good administrators, and it is felt the funds are not being used in the wisest manner.”

The TRC’s final report echoed “the lack of control and scrutiny that Indian Affairs officials exercised over who was admitted to the schools.” And it noted “the difficulty the government had in asserting its authority in the schools. Acts of defiance [by those who ran the schools] were more common than what might be expected.”

With respect to the harsh discipline that was more often the rule than the exception, the TRC found that “the establishment of a nationwide discipline policy in 1953 did not bring an end to abusive disciplinary practices. During the final thirty years of the system’s history, the policies that existed were poorly enforced and often simply ignored.”

In fact, as the TRC reports, the federal government did not take over “full management of the system from the churches” until 1969. By then the government had already announced that it was going to shut the system down and transfer the children to schools operated by the provinces and territories.

Given the lack of control the Canadian government exercised over the way the churches operated the schools, in Macdonald’s time and for decades after, there is no justification for accusing him or the government of an “act of genocide.”

A history lesson for Ontario teachers

There is much today’s Ontario teachers of our children could learn if they cared to study the history of Indian residential schools. Among other things, they would learn that a clear majority of Aboriginal children never attended residential schools. In the 1944-45 school year, for example, there were 28,429 school-age Aboriginal children in all of Canada. 16,438 (57.8 percent) went to school, but of those, only 8,865 attended a residential school, and 7,573 attended day school. “This meant that 31.1 percent of the school-age Aboriginal children were in residential school,” the TRC reports. It also means that 68.9 percent were not, and that 42.2 percent didn’t go to any school.

In other words, more than two-thirds of school-age Aboriginal children were living in their home community speaking their native language with family, friends and relatives. They were unmolested by priests, nuns, teachers, principals or anyone else associated with residential schools including prime ministers and federal bureaucrats. Many of the minority who were in residential schools were not imprisoned there against the wishes of their parents, but sent there by their parents while they were away hunting for months at a time.

Lieutenant-Governor Alexander Morris, who negotiated four of the seven treaties the newly-formed Dominion of Canada entered into between 1871 and 1877 with the scattered bands living between Thunder Bay and the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, wrote the following about Aboriginal education in his book The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West Territories:

“The treaties provide for the establishment of schools, on the reserves, for the instruction of the Indian children. This is a very important feature, and is deserving of being pressed with the utmost energy. The new generation can be trained in the habits and ways of civilized life – prepared to encounter the difficulties with which they will be surrounded, by the influx of settlers, and fitted to maintaining themselves as tillers of the soil. The erection of a school-house on a reserve will be attended to with slight expense, and the Indians would often give their labour towards its construction.”

Because the prairie buffalo herds were almost extinct, the nomadic bands’ ability to support themselves had been greatly diminished.  Lieut.-Gov. Morris said providing farmers and carpenters to instruct them in farming and building houses would assist Aboriginal people to become “self-supporting”.

He also said the “universal demand for teachers, and for some of the Indians for missionaries, is also encouraging. The former, the Government can supply; for the latter they must rely on the churches, and I trust these will continue and extend their operations amongst them. The field is wide enough for all, and the cry of the Indian for help is a clamant one.” Among a list of requests the chiefs had presented to Lieut.-Gov. Morris was “to supply us with a minister and a school teacher of whatever denomination we belong to.”

In reporting on negotiations at Fort Carlton, Saskatchewan, in 1876, Lieut-Gov. Morris said the chiefs requested that a minister be sent to their camp to conduct a service.  About 200 adult Crees attended the service conducted by an Anglican minister. The nomads wanted to learn how to farm and asked for missionaries and teachers.

The commissioners who negotiated Treaty 8 with the bands in the Athabasca region in 1899 reported that, “All the Indians we met were with rare exceptions professing Christians; and showed evidences of the work which missionaries have carried on among them for many years. A few of them have had their children avail themselves of the advantages afforded by boarding schools established at different  missions.”

The report said the bands wanted education for their children “but stipulated that in the matter of schools there should be no interference with their religious [Catholic or Protestant] beliefs.” During Treaty 10 negotiations in northern Saskatchewan in 1906, the chief of the English River band “insisted that in the carrying out of the government’s Indian educational policy among them there should be no interference with the system of religious schools now conducted by the mission, but that public aid should be given for improvement and extension along the lines already followed.”

As reported by other commissioners, the Ojibways in the new province of Manitoba in 1877 wanted to be taught farming and construction. Some in the Fort Frances area of northeastern Ontario were making progress in cultivating the soil. The Ojibways at Lac Seul near Kenora had built two villages in order to have the benefit of schools. The Indian agent in the Lake Manitoba district reported that one band had built a good school, 19 new houses, and had 140 acres under cultivation.

In reporting on the negotiations for Treaty 10 in November, 1905, the treaty commissioners said there were two Christian missions at Fort Albany on Hudson’s Bay – one Roman Catholic and one Anglican. A large boarding school operated by the Grey Nuns accommodated 20 Aboriginal pupils.  Assistance was provided for the sick in the hospital ward and a number of elderly people unable to hunt with their relatives were supported every winter. The celebration of mass on Sunday was well attended.

The Church of England mission was said to be “in a flourishing condition”. The large church was filled for all Sunday services and the worshippers participated in their own language. A feast was held after the treaty was signed at which the Anglican Bishop of Moosonee “began with a prayer in Cree, the Indians making their responses and singing their hymns in the same language.” The church at Moose Factory established by the Church Missionary Society “was crowded every evening by interested Indians”.

A mission at Isle à la Crosse in northern Saskatchewan established around 1844 – 23 years before Macdonald became prime minister – later became a site for treaty negotiations. The presiding commissioner reported that the school “is cosy within, and the children whom I had the pleasure of meeting there, evidenced the kindly care and careful training of the devoted women who have gone out from the comforts of civilization to work for the betterment of the natives of the north.”

Given the significant number of Aboriginals who had converted to Christianity long before Confederation, the residential schools that were already in existence, and the demands of Christian Aboriginals for teachers “of whatever denomination we belong to”, there is no historical basis upon which to claim that Prime Minister Macdonald was the “architect” of the Indian residential schools or the supposed “genocide” that occurred in them.

Terrible and tragic, but not genocide

It is beyond question that far too many Aboriginal children were separated from their parents, physically and/or sexually abused, forbidden to speak their native language, poorly fed and forced to live in overcrowded, unhealthy firetraps and, overall, denied the benefits of an adequate education.

Indeed, the testimony of hundreds of former students and the unspeakable horrors they described at the TRC hearings would break a heart of stone. But that’s not the whole story of Indian residential schools in Canada, many of which provided sanctuary for thousands of aboriginal children from horrific circumstances in their profoundly dysfunctional home communities, and helped them integrate into the mainstream of Canadian life. In light of these facts there is no reasonable basis upon which to charge Macdonald or anyone else with the crime of genocide.

If the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario were better informed, they would not be calling for the removal of Macdonald’s name from the elementary schools. Nor would they dishonour the memory of those who were killed in the Nazi concentration camps by falsely accusing him of genocide. The teachers should withdraw that slanderous and totally unsupportable allegation.

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