Historical truth

Sir John A. Macdonald Saved More Native Lives Than Any Other Prime Minister

Greg Piasetzki
November 27, 2020
Were he alive today, Sir John A. Macdonald would make short work of his many present-day critics through his legendarily quick wit, disarming personality and mastery of the facts. Unfortunately, he isn’t around to defend himself against horrifying claims he committed genocide against Canada’s Indigenous people. To take on this calumny, Greg Piasetzki goes back to the source. Using Macdonald’s own words and other contemporary voices, Piasetzki brings alive our Founding Father’s determination to save native lives and protect their interests throughout his time in office.
Historical truth

Sir John A. Macdonald Saved More Native Lives Than Any Other Prime Minister

Greg Piasetzki
November 27, 2020
Were he alive today, Sir John A. Macdonald would make short work of his many present-day critics through his legendarily quick wit, disarming personality and mastery of the facts. Unfortunately, he isn’t around to defend himself against horrifying claims he committed genocide against Canada’s Indigenous people. To take on this calumny, Greg Piasetzki goes back to the source. Using Macdonald’s own words and other contemporary voices, Piasetzki brings alive our Founding Father’s determination to save native lives and protect their interests throughout his time in office.
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Given that he died in 1891, the facts of Sir John A. Macdonald’s life are unchangeable. The story of his life, however, has changed dramatically in recent years. During his life and for well over a century after his death, he was regarded as Canada’s foremost founding father and one of this country’s most colourful characters. Confederation was very much Macdonald’s singular achievement – the product of his masterful skill at negotiation, plus plenty of patience and resolve. He was also noted for his sunny disposition and lively sense of humour. A fondness for the bottle and being caught in a serious political scandal may have tempered history’s judgement, but only to the degree that such flaws revealed his humanity. 

Lately, however, Macdonald has come to be defined by a completely different story. As a result of his participation in the Indian residential school system as well as the white settlement of the Prairies, it is now common to hear Macdonald’s legacy described as a black stain on Canada’s past. In 2018 Victoria, B.C. removed a statue of him from in front of City Hall following an official statement that identified Canada’s first prime minister as “the leader of violence against Indigenous peoples.” With similar motivation but somewhat less formality, last summer an angry mob tore down and decapitated a statue of Macdonald in Montreal, scrawling a profane slogan on his plinth.

John A. Macdonald pictured in his Ottawa residence in 1888 next to a picture of his decapitated statue in Montreal in August 2020.
Reversal of fortune: Sir John A. Macdonald’s legacy as a nation-builder has lately come under fire; Canada’s first prime minister at Earnscliffe, his Ottawa residence, in 1888 (left) and his statue in Montreal after being decapitated by a mob in August 2020 (right). (Image credits: John Mahoney/Montreal Gazette, left, and Library and Archives Canada, right.)

Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Macdonald’s home for much of his political career, recently removed his name from the school’s Faculty of Law building. Sir John A. Macdonald High School near Halifax, Nova Scotia, is doing the same thing. “Our current name does not align with [the school’s] values, nor does it reflect our school community,” the school’s principal told local media. Native rights activist Pam Palmater of Ryerson University goes much further in indicting Macdonald, claiming he was “responsible for genocide against Indigenous peoples.” It is now an open question whether Macdonald’s name will remain on any of the innumerable other schools, buildings and landmarks christened in his honour. 

For most of Canada’s history, Macdonald was considered a nation-builder worthy of celebration and veneration. Today he’s a war criminal, at least to hear some tell it. One storyline has given way to another. But a proper and balanced consideration of Macdonald’s life as it was actually lived reveals that, through his own actions and policies, Canada’s first prime minister was directly and deliberately responsible for saving the lives of untold numbers of Indigenous people. It is easily argued, in fact, that no Canadian politician before or since has had such a salutary impact on Canada’s native population. Given the temper of our times, this isn’t likely to be a popular notion. But that doesn’t make it any less true. 

Avoiding War and Abiding by Treaties

Canada’s treatment of its Indigenous people – and Macdonald’s role in it – is best understood in comparison with that of the native population in the United States. Given the arbitrariness of the Canada/U.S. border, we can consider the divergent experiences on either side to constitute a natural (if, for some, tragic) experiment. The results very much favour Macdonald’s Canada. 

At Confederation, Canada was a small country of approximately 4 million people comprised of what’s now southern Ontario and southern Quebec plus Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The purchase of Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1870 and the entry of British Columbia into Confederation a year later increased Canada’s land mass tenfold; its Indigenous population similarly grew from an estimated 20,000 to 100,000. Macdonald’s plan was to turn Canada into a mighty nation befitting its new size by welcoming settlers from Europe and elsewhere to farm the largely empty Prairies. To do this would require a railway and the co-operation of the native people.

To the south lay the powerful United States. With a population ten times Canada’s and better transportation links (including the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and a vast and growing web of railways), the U.S. had opened much of its western lands to settlement before Canada even existed. The westward progress of this unorganized torrent of trappers, Buffalo hunters, goldminers, farmers, ranchers, sheepherders, merchants and assorted other fortune seekers was far from peaceful.

Room to grow: The purchase of the Hudson’s Bay Company lands in 1870 and British Columbia’s 1871 entry into Confederation increased Canada’s land mass tenfold.

By and large, American settlers entered Indigenous lands ahead of any formal government presence and without negotiation with the original inhabitants. What treaties were signed between native tribes and the government were often abrogated as soon as it was in the best interest of white settlers to do so. Forced migrations, as authorized by the Indian Removal Act of 1830, further contributed to the dislocation and grievous harm experienced by native Americans. The Trail of Tears, for example, uprooted 16,000 mostly Cherokee natives from Georgia and relocated them to Oklahoma, an area with an entirely different climate and geography. This process – what might be considered a “settlement first, negotiation second” approach – inevitably led to conflict and war. 

In 1890, as part of its regular census of the native population, the U.S. Congress requested a calculation of all lives lost in the more than 40 individual wars between Indigenous tribes and American settlers or government troops since signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1789. The government’s best estimate for this hundred-year period put the death toll at 45,000 natives and 20,000 white soldiers and settlers. A more recent academic study using advanced statistical methods raises the native death toll to 60,000. 

Looking only at conflicts in the American West between 1850 and 1890 – the period most relevant to the settling of Canada’s Prairies – the Encyclopedia of Indian Wars calculates that 6,600 whites and 15,000 natives were killed or wounded in battles during this four-decade span. It should be noted that the above figures do not include the loss of life caused by government policies carried out at gunpoint outside of war. The Trail of Tears, for example, is estimated to have caused 4,000 to 8,000 native deaths, an astounding casualty rate of 25-50 percent. 

Wars, broken treaties and grievous mistreatment of Indigenous people characterized the process of white settlement across the American West.

Standing in stark and, from the Canadian perspective, greatly uplifting contrast to these appalling figures is a companion document to the 1890 U.S. Congress report, concerning the Canadian experience. Significantly, it makes no mention of any death toll arising from “Indian Wars” in this country. This was not an oversight. Since the British conquest of New France in 1761, there were no significant wars in what is now Canada prior to the Riel Rebellion of 1885. And this solitary armed conflict was a Métis uprising notable for its lack of large-scale native participation; the First Nation death toll from the entire conflagration was no more than a few dozen

Such a long and, it must be said, happy period of peaceful relations between Indigenous and white populations in Canada was largely the result of British policy that sought to make and keep treaties with native communities. Recall that one of the American Revolution’s underlying causes was the British colonial government’s determination to prevent white settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains, a commitment made in the Royal Proclamation of 1763. The British approach is best characterized as “negotiation first, settlement second.”

As Canada’s first prime minister, Macdonald was extremely proud of this legacy of peaceful co-operation and co-habitation. And he was determined to maintain such a policy while overseeing the settlement of Canada’s West. In 1870 Macdonald sent the Rev. Jean-Baptiste Thibault as his emissary to natives throughout the former Hudson’s Bay Company lands. Thibault’s instructions (see page 45) clearly reflect his Conservative government’s fervent desire to avoid an American-style invasion of the Prairies:

“So far as you may have intercourse with the Indian chiefs and people, you will be good enough to remind them that while bloody and costly Indian wars have raged, often over long periods, in different sections of the United States, there has been no war with the Indians in any of the Provinces of British America since the conquest…Everywhere within the Canadas, the progress of settlement, while it furnished new employments to the Indians, was rendered practicable by treaties and arrangements mutually satisfactory, that have formed the secure basis of the sympathy and co-operation which have distinguished the Canadians and Indians…from the earliest exploration of the Country.

It may fairly be assumed that the just and judicious treatment of the Indian Tribes forms the brightest page in the history of British America. Canadians cannot afford to sully it by any ungenerous treatment of the Indians in the North-West.”

This assessment of Canadian history wasn’t simply a case of Macdonald’s government flattering itself. That same year the U.S. Congress sent a commission to Canada to study native relations in this country. In his report, Commissioner F.N. Blake came to much the same conclusion, noting the remarkable lack of Indian Wars in this country, and the effect this had on the Indigenous population. “One of the most positive indicators on this point is their numerical increase during the last quarter century,” Blake observed. While native communities in the U.S. were in rapid decline as a result of war, forced removals, treaty violations and assorted other mistreatments, Canada’s Indigenous people were healthy and growing. As Blake noted, it was “an established rule with the British Canadian government to take no land from the Indians, except with the legal assent of the band, tribe or nation owning it.” 

To avoid repeating the violence associated with the settling of the American West, Macdonald appointed Treaty Commissioner Alexander Morris to negotiate with native tribes before widespread white settlement took place on the Canadian Prairies. This process consumed nearly a decade, but by 1877 seven numbered treaties had been signed covering all 30,000 natives residing in the southern portions of what are today Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. In exchange for relinquishing their broader land rights, the First Nations received reserves in their traditional territory and benefits including food, medicine, education and agricultural training.

Emissaries of peace: Macdonald sent Rev. Jean-Baptiste Thibault (left) west in 1870 to lay the groundwork for white settlement of the Prairies; Treaty Commissioner Alexander Morris (right) followed later to negotiate treaties with the Indigenous people.

The native chiefs who signed these treaties were well-aware of the alternative to British-style negotiation. This was not only because thousands of U.S. natives had fled across the “Medicine Line” into Canada to escape conflict with the U.S. Cavalry, but because many Canadian tribes traditionally roamed south of the border and had seen firsthand the violence.  

While Macdonald is today frequently accused of perpetrating genocide against Indigenous people, in his own time the prime minister was repeatedly rebuked by the Liberal Opposition for being overly generous in his native policy. In 1885, for example, he was criticized for placing native reserves on their traditional territories, which, in some cases, was prime farmland close to the Canadian Pacific Railway. Liberal MPs, such as New Brunswick’s Peter Mitchell, felt this was a waste of good farmland and demanded Macdonald forcibly relocate the natives farther north so white settlers could more profitably take the land, a proposal disturbingly similar to the Trail of Tears. Macdonald opposed such a policy on moral grounds. As he said in the 1885 House of Commons debates (see page 2,426): 

“The reserves they now hold were given them by treaty. They are on their property. We cannot deprive them of those reserves without another treaty. If it has happened that after these reserves were established near a railway, or another railway comes near them…we cannot help that. They live on their own property, they are free men.”

This is a very clear expression of Macdonald’s belief in the sanctity of treaties and his efforts to defend the best interests of Canada’s native peoples. How many native lives were saved by his determination to sign and abide by Indigenous treaties, even at the cost of delaying westward settlement or, in some instances, requiring white settlers to take lands farther from the new railway? It is obviously impossible to pick a precise number. But given the scale of bloodshed in the American West, it was clearly substantial.

The completion of Treaty 3 is pictured in 1873, reflecting Macdonald's determination to make treaties with Aboriginal people instead of war.
Natives in Manitoba are pictured receiving their treaty money, reflecting Sir John A. Macdonald's commitment to treaty making over conflict.
Make treaty, not war: Treaty Number 3 is concluded in 1873 (above); natives in St. Peter’s Manitoba receive their treaty money (below, undated). (Below image credit: Library and Archives Canada)

The Creation of the North-West Mounted Police  

Another key piece of Macdonald’s plan to avoid white/native conflict in Canada’s new western territory was to create a police force to establish a system of law and order on the Prairies ahead of white settlement – again in contrast to the American experience. The North-West Mounted Police (NWMP), the precursor to today’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police, was meant to deter incursions from the U.S. and protect the legal rights of both natives and settlers once settlement began. Despite claims that the modern-day RCMP is riven with racism and sexism, the force’s very existence stands as testimony to the Government of Canada’s intention to protect the native population from depredation and genocide.

The design of the NWMP was deeply influenced by a report from Lt. William Francis Butler, a British soldier who toured the Canadian West at Macdonald’s request in 1871. Butler had previous travelled the American Plains and was outraged by the “terrible, heart-sickening deeds of cruelty and rapacious infamy” arising from the American “wars of extinction” waged against Indigenous people. He was determined that Canada should avoid such a disaster, and proposed the creation of a mounted police force and system of travelling magistrates to protect the Indigenous population and bring a formal process for justice to the Prairies. Macdonald wholly embraced this vision, as the following excerpt from the 1870 House of Commons debates (see page 1,310) explains:

“Hon. Sir John A. Macdonald said that it was intended to have a body of mounted rifles to protect the people from the chance of an Indian war. Under the beneficent rule of the Hudson’s Bay Company there was peace in the Territory, while across the line there were frequent wars, and the Indians were shot down by emigrants going West – shot down ruthlessly. As the expectation was that there would be a large influx of emigrants from Europe or from Canada, and there was a fear that emigrants from the American States, accustomed to deal with the Indians as enemies, would be shooting them down and causing great disturbances, the necessity arose to have a small but active force of cavalry to act as mounted police.”

The most pressing issue facing the NWMP on its creation in 1873 was to counter the presence of American whiskey traders at Fort Whoop-Up, near present-day Lethbridge, Alberta. This was not only a threat to Canadian sovereignty but an immediate peril to local natives. “If left to ourselves we are gone. The whiskey brought among us by the Traders is fast killing us off and we are powerless before the evil,” Blackfoot chief Isapo-Muxika said at the time. “A large number of our people have killed one another and perished in various ways under the influence, and now that we hear of our Great Mother sending her soldiers into our country for our good, we are glad.” 

Macdonald’s explicit purpose in creating the Northwest Mounted Police was to establish law and order on the Prairies prior to white settlement and for the benefit of the native people; NWMP officers with members of the Blackfoot First Nation at Fort Calgary in 1878 (left) and at Fort Walsh, Saskatchewan (right, undated).

The NWMP shut down the whiskey trade with relative ease, and afterwards natives and settlers alike came to trust the force to adjudicate conflicts in a neutral fashion. In 1873, NWMP Commissioner James Macleod and Reverend John McDougall met with leaders of the Blackfoot Confederacy to explain the intended role of the NWMP in maintaining peace. Chief Crowfoot, as cited in McDougall’s book, On Western Trails in the Early Seventies, responded:

“My brother, your words make me glad. I listened to them not only with my ears but with my heart also. In the coming of the Long Knives [U.S. Cavalry], with their firewater and quick-shooting guns, we were weak, and our people have been woefully slain and impoverished. You say this will be stopped. We are glad to have it stopped. We want peace. What you tell us about this strong power which will govern good law and treat the Indian the same as the white man, makes us glad to hear. My brother, I believe you, and am thankful.”

Settlement of the Canadian West began in earnest in the early 1880s and led, as expected, to increased instances of conflict between settlers and natives on and off reserve lands. Considering the accusations made against Macdonald today, it is noteworthy that he was criticized in his time for instructing the NWMP not to show favouritism towards white settlers. Rather, he argued, it was their proper role to protect the rights of native and settler alike, as this speech in the 1885 House of Commons (see page 2,422) explains:  

“The duty of the police is…a continuous one, and an increasing one, and the increase in the number of white settlers adds to the difficulty…Settlers, as a rule, take a hostile position against the Indians, just as it has been in the experience of the United States all along the Western frontier. The duty of the police is not only to protect the white man against the Indian, but the Indian against the white man.” (Emphasis added.)

Macdonald wished to install a functioning justice system in the West prior to white settlement to protect native interests. Such an enlightened view will no doubt comes as a surprise to his many present-day detractors. But in doing so, Macdonald undoubtedly saved many more native lives from American-style frontier justice.

Smallpox Vaccination   

The arrival of smallpox to North America was disastrous for native populations across the continent since they had no natural resistance to this deadly disease. In the 1830s, for example, an epidemic originating in the American West migrated north and killed three-quarters of all natives living in the Edmonton area. The estimated death toll among Indigenous people in pre-Confederation Canada runs to the tens of thousands. And while a vaccine for smallpox had existed since 1796, delivering it to remote Indigenous communities was a logistical challenge that required a significant government commitment. 

Prior to Confederation, the governments of Upper and Lower Canada under the joint leadership of Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier had organized a vaccination campaign for provincial native populations as part of a comprehensive public health program. This was highly effective and quickly felt. In his 1868 Annual Report (see page 12) federal Indian Affairs bureaucrat William Spragge remarked on the observed increase in the Indigenous population:

“One cause of this is that the contagious diseases such, as smallpox, which at times have swept off whole families, have, of late, been guarded against; and at periods sufficiently near to each other it is our practice to require professional men to make so general a vaccination as to leave little room for apprehension, of a repetition of such visitations.”

Once Canada took over the Hudson’s Bay Company lands, smallpox vaccination was gradually expanded to include all native Canadians in the western territories as well. During the Liberal administration of Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie, Dr. Daniel Hagarty was appointed medical superintendent for the Canadian West and given the huge responsibility of vaccinating the entire Indigenous population. 

This objective was maintained following Macdonald’s return to power in 1878. And it was again tremendously successful. In some native communities, the vaccination rate hit 100 percent, a remarkable feat that is rarely duplicated today. In the 1883 Annual Report of Indian Affairs (see page 263) local administrator E. McKay of the Birch River Reserve in Manitoba explained that: 

“I distribute, according to instructions, the 1,000 points of vaccine matter received last summer, to the different Hudson Bay Company’s officers, clergymen and school teachers to vaccinate all the Indians in their respective districts throughout this agency…The Indians universally expressed their unbounded gratitude for the generous consideration of the Government in protecting them from the dreaded ravages of small-pox, and in providing medicine chests at the different reserves for their sick.”

This nation-wide policy was so successful that in 1885, when a particularly deadly smallpox outbreak killed 3,000 residents of Montreal, the Kahnewake native reserve across the river reported “but very few cases” of the disease. Everyone on the reserve had already been vaccinated by the federal government.

A remarkable public health success story: During Macdonald’s time, the federal government virtually eliminated smallpox among Indigenous people across the West thanks to a comprehensive vaccination strategy.

Untold numbers of Indigenous people died throughout the Canadian West prior to the 1870s as a result of smallpox. Yet due to the commitment of Liberal and Conservative administrations, the death toll among native Canadians from the disease by the 1880s and beyond was close to zero. As University of Saskatchewan historian and notable Macdonald critic James Daschuk wrote in his widely-cited 2013 book Clearing the Plains, the federal government “virtually eliminated smallpox as a major cause of mortality among First Nations.” Smallpox vaccination on the Prairies is one of Canada’s great public health success stories and it saved many, many native lives. Macdonald deserves his share of the glory.  

Famine Relief for Plains Natives 

The gravest charges against Macdonald’s legacy involve his role in the famine among the Indigenous population of the Prairies following the collapse of North America’s buffalo herds in the late 1870s. The claim that Macdonald was responsible for a “state-sponsored attack on Indigenous communities” by denying food relief in order to open the Prairies to white settlement is forcefully made in Clearing the Plains. Perhaps the most stinging indictment comes from Macdonald’s own words. Daschuk twice quotes Macdonald from 1882 saying his government was “doing all we can, by refusing food until the Indians are on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense.” This line is also repeated in many current-day condemnations of Macdonald as evidence of his lack of compassion for Indigenous people.

The near-extinction of the continental buffalo herds caused tremendous hardship for Canada’s western Indigenous communities, which depended on the meat, bones and hide of the buffalo for much of their sustenance and supplies. While this outcome was widely predicted in the late 1800s, it occurred much faster than anyone expected. Responsibility for this calamity cannot be laid at Macdonald’s feet. Rather, it was the result of rampant American hunting aimed at the buffalo’s eradication to facilitate settlement and farming, as well as U.S. military tactics to starve out certain native tribes, plus environmental changes.

The buffalo die-off occurred just as Macdonald’s government was completing the numbered treaties process – deals Daschuk admits were largely fair and “reached from positions of mutual strength.” As a result, some treaties included explicit clauses for government aid; Treaty Six, for example, makes the following provision:

“That in the event hereafter of the Indians comprised within this treaty being overtaken by any pestilence, or by a general famine, the Queen, on being satisfied and certified thereof by Her Indian Agent or Agents, will grant to the Indians assistance of such character and to such extent as Her Chief Superintendent of Indian Affairs shall deem necessary and sufficient to relieve the Indians from the calamity that shall have befallen them.”

When the famine arrived with unexpected swiftness in 1878, the government reacted as its treaties dictated. Macdonald told the House of Commons that the “absolute failure of the usual food supply of the Indians in the North-West” created the “necessity of a large expenditure in order to save them from absolute starvation.” A year later Macdonald announced a special council to investigate the food crisis and to “supply food to the Indians”. 

Protecting the buffalo from overhunting in Canada protected a key traditional way of life for Indigenous people on the Prairies.
Deliberate overhunting, U.S. military strategy and environmental change doomed the free-roaming buffalo herds of North America and ended the traditional way of life for Indigenous people on the Prairies.

Natives living on reserves were provided aid, mostly flour and bacon, as per the government’s obligations. Recalcitrant tribes not on living on their reserve land, however, had their relief provisions withheld or reduced in order to induce them to move onto reserves as a negotiation tactic. Macdonald describes his policy in more detail in 1886 House of Commons debates (see page 22):

“To the Indians who go upon their reserves we give food until they are able to support themselves, but we reduce them to half rations when they are simply wandering and demoralised Indians…When these people are hanging about the Government stores and offices, we reduce them to as low a ration as is sufficient to keep life in their bodies; but we tell them: ‘Go to your stations and we will give you food to take you there, and you will get full rations until you are able to support yourselves.’” [Editor’s note: “wandering and demoralised Indians” refers to Indigenous people not on reserves.]

In making this statement, Macdonald is responding to criticism of excessive generosity made by the Liberal Opposition. And while half rations may sound draconian to modern ears, and is no doubt uncomfortable, it is not a death sentence. Keep in mind that no treaty obligated the federal government to provide rations to any natives living off-reserve. From this perspective, a diet of half rations should be seen as evidence of Macdonald’s compassion rather than malice. Even Daschuk acknowledges that “Rations kept many from starving.” The reduction for some was meant to encourage those wandering natives to return to their reserves, where the treaties they signed required them to be. Recall that it was this strict and legalistic approach to treaties that distinguished Canada’s native experience from the bloody and arbitrary American version.  

Macdonald allocated considerable government resources to fulfilling its famine relief duties. In 1878 the federal budget for Indian Affairs was a rather modest $276,000. By the peak of the famine in 1884, this item had grown to $1.1 million, outweighing National Defence by a substantial margin. In 1884 Indian Affairs accounted for 3 percent of the total federal budget and was the fourth-largest operating (non-debt) item, surpassed only by Public Buildings, the Post Office and Railways. Three percent of the federal budget would be an impressive $11 billion in 2019. 

This was the largest famine relief program Canada had provided up to that point. That it occurred in the midst of a severe economic recession in Eastern Canada makes its scale all the more impressive. In fact, such a commitment to public aid in Canada would not be equaled until the Great Depression, nearly 50 years later. In his 1880 Annual Report of Indian Affairs, Edgar Dewdney, Indian Commissioner for the North-West reported that nearly all 30,000 natives under treaty in western Canada were receiving some form of federal food aid.

Acquiring a sufficient supply of food, shipping it across the continent and distributing it throughout the sparsely populated West, where there was as-yet no railway, was a daunting logistical task. Like many massive government programs implemented on short notice – including the current response to the COVID pandemic – the famine relief program was bedevilled by allegations of incompetence and corruption, as Daschuk’s book amply details. And while corruption and incompetence are never acceptable, there is no evidence Macdonald personally or politically benefitted from these problems. 

Rather, Macdonald’s famine relief program suffered from a constant barrage of political attacks regarding the overall cost to taxpayers. The Liberals wanted to spend less on the native file. Much less. Let’s return to that damning quotation in which Macdonald appears to boast about keeping the native population “on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense.” While this appears callous and inhumane, it doesn’t tell the whole story. 

In response to famine, the federal government quadrupled its Indian Affairs budget; Blackfoot people receive rations in Alberta in 1883-84 (left), a process overseen by Indian Commissioner for Canada’s western territories, Edgar Dewdney (right).

Macdonald made these remarks during debate on the 1882 budget. Liberal MP David Mills, who later sat on the Supreme Court of Canada, was arguing that the $294,524 set aside for “Supplies for destitute Indians,” was excessive and should be lowered. “I believe a barbarous population like the Indians may be made wholly dependent upon Government” through handouts, Mills asserted. He was, in essence, proposing that any money spent on native famine relief was money wasted because it would engender a culture of dependency. To this Macdonald retorted “When they fall into a state of destitution, we cannot allow them to die for want of food.”

Macdonald’s statement about keeping natives “on the verge of starvation” was meant to acknowledge the Opposition’s complaints about costs. But the full exchange reveals a deeper concern for the wellbeing of natives and their treaty rights. In a similar exchange, this one in  the 1880 House of Commons debates (see page 1,942) Macdonald frames the issue as a moral one:

“Public sentiment would not allow, and no Government would be worthy of their position, if they allowed the Indians to starve as long as we have the means to feed them. The Government adopted the best means for relieving them. We were obliged to find food for them.”

Even Daschuk grudgingly acknowledged that the government’s relief program prevented widespread death from hunger across the Prairies. “The Macdonald administration avoided,” he wrote in Clearing the Plains “a region-wide mortality of the Indigenous population from famine, yet the quantity of rations was the absolute minimum to sustain life.” While he may have been parsimonious, Macdonald’s famine relief policies clearly saved lives. This deserves recognition, not scorn. 

It is also true that the collapse of their traditional way of life due to the disappearance of the buffalo led to many tragic outcomes for Western Canada’s Indigenous people, in particular an increased susceptibility to diseases such as tuberculosis. But eradicating this disease was far beyond Macdonald’s control; there would be no effective treatment for tuberculosis (or “consumption” as it was usually called at the time) until the discovery of streptomycin in 1944. In fact tuberculosis was also a major killer of non-native Canadians in urban areas throughout Macdonald’s time; between 1850 and 1900, for example, it was the leading cause of death among adults in Toronto.

Residential Schools

Residential schools also figure prominently in popular claims that Macdonald was responsible for a “genocide” of Indigenous people.  In fact, the first such schools appeared in Canada in 1695, long before Macdonald’s tenure. And their application to western Canada cannot properly be regarded as a government plot to permanently eliminate native culture. Under the seven numbered treaties, the federal government was obligated to build and staff such schools only when requested to do so by native leaders, or, as Treaty Six clearly states, “whenever the Indians of the reserve shall desire it.” 

And they clearly did desire it: during Macdonald’s tenure as prime minister no fewer than 185 on-reserve day schools and 20 residential schools were built. This reveals a strong interest among native leaders to have their children given a western-style education, as well as a preference for local over residential schools at this time. And attendance was entirely voluntary.

Education without compulsion: Attendance was entirely voluntary throughout the native school system during Macdonald’s tenure and for three decades after his death; the Qu’Appelle Indian Industrial School in Lebret, Saskatchewan circa 1885 (left) and the All Saints Indian Residential School in Lac La Ronge, Saskatchewan (right, undated). (Right image credit: Library and Archives Canada)

Although the Progressive movement across North America at this time was pushing governments everywhere to make schooling universally compulsory, Macdonald resisted this for native children. Without parental support, he believed, native education would not succeed. Accordingly, it was left up to native parents to decide whether their offspring should go to school. This policy continued long after Macdonald’s death.

As late as 1920, attendance at all native schools in Canada was still entirely voluntary, as that year’s Indian Affairs Annual Report (see page 106) makes plain. Within day schools, the dropout rate from Grade 1 to Grade 2 was more than 70 percent; only 46 native students across Canada chose to continue to Grade 6 at on-reserve day schools.  Attendance in the residential school system was similar. In 1920 about half of all students in those schools returned home permanently after Grade 1. At Alberta’s 19 residential schools, for example, native enrollment fell from 310 in Grade 1 to 171 in Grade 2 to 11 in Grade 6. These schools were not prison camps – anyone who wished to could leave. And many did. 

It is a testament to Macdonald’s enlightened leadership that he was able to persuade Canadians to build and staff native schools without enforcing compulsory attendance as was the case elsewhere in the country. Further, this policy continued for three decades after his death. Did this save directly native lives? Maybe not. But it was certainly a compassionate approach to the vexing problem of moving native Canadians from a pre-industrial to modern world. At the very least, it seems impossible to argue that Macdonald’s voluntary attendance policy could be construed as “cultural genocide,” as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and many others have claimed. 


Macdonald’s legacy is complicated by the passage of time and changing perspectives. But through careful study of his own words and deeds, as well as the reports and actions of his officials, contemporaries, native chiefs and political opponents, what emerges is a clear and powerful picture of his enlightened view towards Indigenous people and his strong sense of moral purpose.

Macdonald was determined to avoid the violence and dislocation that attended settlement of the American West. To prevent war, he relied on the time-honoured British tradition of signing and abiding by treaties. After this process was set in motion, Macdonald then created the NWMP to ensure law and order was established on the Prairies prior to large-scale white settlement. When smallpox threatened native populations, a comprehensive vaccination program was rolled out, similar to what he had overseen in Upper Canada. When the buffalo herds collapsed, Macdonald immediately initiated a massive relief effort and overcame enormous logistical and budgetary hurdles to provide food aid for the affected tribes. 

John A. Macdonald statues are being defaced across Canada, despite a career spent protecting native lives and interests.
John A. Macdonald statues are being defaced with red paint across Canada amid accusations of a genocide against Indigenous people.
Despite a career spent protecting native lives and interests, Macdonald today faces charges he was guilty of genocide against Indigenous people; statues in his honour have been attacked or defaced by protestors from Regina, Saskatchewan (above) to Baden, Ontario (below).

And when Indigenous tribes requested it, he offered western-style education – mostly in the form of day schools – on a non-compulsory basis. None of this can be construed as violence towards native people. It was, in fact, quite the opposite: an expression of genuine concern for their wellbeing. It should be considered deeply ironic that in his own time Macdonald’s political opponents attacked him relentlessly for indulging Canada’s “barbarous population” and fostering their dependency on government aid while today a new set of critics take the same facts and unfairly accuse him of genocide. 

If Macdonald’s story has changed, it’s because Canadian society no longer understands its own history. 

Greg Piasetzki is a Toronto-based intellectual property lawyer with an interest in Canadian history.

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