The costs of John A. Macdonald

The City of Kingston grapples with the story of Canada’s founding father
Photo: Kingston's Bellevue House, where John A. Macdonald lived for part of his life, is a national historic site. By Takashi Toyooka.

Though national progress defines the story most often told about Sir John A. Macdonald, there’s a lot more to it.

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To mark the 200th birthday of Canada’s first prime minister, the City of Kingston, Ontario, hosted a series of events last year. Macdonald was a student, lawyer, then local politician in Kingston, before taking on Confederation and ruthlessly pushing through the Canadian railway. “No city has a greater claim to Macdonald,” proclaims the official website for the municipality.

Many Kingston residents have used the occasion to critically explore other parts of Macdonald’s story. Leela Viswanathan, professor of geography and planning, and Scott Morgensen, professor of gender studies, are the new editors of the Journal of Critical Race Inquiry, an open-source publication housed at Queen’s University. The latest issue focuses on the legacies of the man considered Canada’s foremost founding father.

Ricochet reached Morgensen and Viswanathan by phone to talk about the centuries-old costs of John A. Macdonald’s vision for the country.

Why did you decide to devote a whole issue to John A. Macdonald at this time?

Scott Morgensen, professor of gender studies at Queen's University. (Submitted)

Morgensen: The relaunching of the Journal of Critical Race Inquiry coincided with the bicentenary for John A. Macdonald. Through 2014 and 2015, people spanning the Kingston community all wanted to have a very careful and sometimes critical public discussion about what Macdonald’s legacy means for individuals and for Kingston.

There were lots of events. SALON Theatre had a John A. Macdonald impersonator who hosted critical dialogues. City schools also had a year-long curriculum called “Does Kingston Need a New Hero?” Graduate student Erin Sutherland, who curated the cover image, ran an event called “Talkin’ Back to Johnny Mac” and brought in Indigenous artists from across Canada to present critical perspectives on his legacy through public art performance. All of these inventive contributions came from the Kingston community, and we thought it was an effective way for the journal to reflect its grounding in this place.

Leela Viswanathan, professor of geography and planning at Queen's University. (Submitted)

Viswanathan: We can apply different lenses in looking at a historical figure like Macdonald and even the everyday experience of walking around in Kingston, where every other building has a plaque saying “Sir John A. lived here” or “He bought this house for his sister” and statues of him are located prominently in parks. The last article in the issue, by Paul Carl and Laura Murray, speaks to the everyday experience of coming face to face with Sir John A.’s legacy in the built-in environment through Indigenous and settler eyes. We’re located on Indigenous lands, and yet all the markers around us seem to point to this dominating story of Kingston being Canada’s first capital.

Lots of people say Macdonald was a product of his time, but the article by Timothy Stanley gets to the point that there were lots of choices that were made and there were lots of discussions that questioned Macdonald’s stance on ethnic Chinese and new immigrants to Canada and that fed into the kind of policy that was created. Rather than just talking about progress, we want to talk about the costs too. Yes, it was Macdonald’s anniversary, but he’s still around. And for some people that’s a personal thing.

Can you talk more about the problem with these constant celebrations of our so-called founding fathers?

Morgensen: Contemporary nationalism is popularly and even legally based on official multiculturalism, the story that Canada is not a melting pot but a mosaic of cultural, ethnic, and, dare I say, racial differences and that we’ll all be capable of living in harmony on this territory into the future. When you think about racial disparities, class disparities, immigration control, this mythology obviously doesn’t account for the present moment in which people live. And it certainly can’t explain the era in which the country we now know as Canada was founded.

The celebration of progress overshadows and knocks out the din in the background of people still clamouring to be heard.

If one were curious about how race and racism shaped Canada, one would probably have to go back to the debates in the House of Commons after the independent country was first formed. Timothy does a wonderful job of showing through the House of Commons transcripts that cultural racism and biological racism were the frameworks through which white male property owners had governmental roles over racialized and Indigenous people. They were the frameworks through which race and Indigeneity were being made known. Those are the legal foundations of the country. What are the racial and colonial legacies that still persist within our mythologically multicultural and free present and future, which of course is taking place on occupied territory?

Viswanathan: The public and basically everybody loves a big party. Isn’t it great how far we’ve come? Isn’t it great how prosperous we’ve become as a nation? It fits into this big story of nation-building and progress. It doesn’t think about the costs of it and doesn’t actually get us to the point of saying there’s still a lot of work for us to do and a lot of voices that need to be heard. The celebration of progress overshadows and knocks out the din in the background of people still clamouring to be heard.

In Canada we like to differentiate ourselves from our neighbours in the south as being more progressive in our acceptance and inclusion of a variety of different cultures. The kinds of stories in this issue go counter to that and it’s a downer in some people’s minds. But the truth is that these stories are ongoing. The data is there. Looking at it in a multifaceted manner is really important.

You’ve mentioned a couple times “the costs” of Macdonald’s building of the country. What costs can we see in the current day?

Morgensen: I might reference a book that has been popularly received and well awarded by James Daschuk Called Clearing the Plains. Daschuk was invited to come to Kingston to speak about how Macdonald’s policies in his initial tenure as prime minister deliberately and explicitly produced the politics of starvation and a severe loss of life for Indigenous people on the prairies. This was intended not only to remove Indigenous people from their territory and also disturb or dissolve their independent governance, and not only to create space for white settlement, but for the establishment of the railroad. This is one of the key places where the racialization and the racial and colonial control of Indigenous people and the Chinese and other Asian folks were linked.

If we are to connect with one another and be a network of Canadians, we need to know our diverse histories.

Viswanathan: When we think of progress it’s a linear thing. Things happen, we move on. Things happen again, we move on. One of the big costs is forgetting. We believe the violence of colonialism is in the past and there aren’t any vestiges. But if we are to connect with one another and be a network of Canadians, we need to know our diverse histories. Who are we and where do we come from as a nation? What are the different stories that feed into our national discourse?

The other cost is we think of colonialism and the histories of Indigenous people as only being in the past, and yet the majority of Indigenous people in Canada live in our cities. If you begin to recognize that they live in our cities and their histories are also located in our cities — although we might have used cement to bury the rivers and built fences around trees, and Canada may not have any official policy of segregation in the way that there is in the United States — if you dig more deeply, you’ll see that colonialism still lives today, segregation exists by the creation of reserves. If we think of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit as not being where the majority of us live, then that feeds into that constant forgetting — this cost of not recognizing colonialism as still being here and present and still lived by lots of people.

Queen's University acknowledgment of territory.
Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre

The cost of segregation in Canada — we think of the United States as having to deal with the impact of a longstanding policy of segregation that affected schools and continues to affect neighbourhoods and where people live and where people are led to buy homes. In Canada, for many reasons, we don’t keep these conversations going, and we become lazy and we start thinking that everything is okay. I’m not saying that everything is not okay, but I feel that as a scholar and a teacher trying to teach students who are going to become urban planners, I want them to understand what our history is so that we don’t perpetuate mistakes from the past, to show that as individuals we can act differently. There is clear evidence for making informed decisions and not going back to these practices of segregation and exclusion, which I really think are rooted in fear and change.

So there’s the cost of forgetting and the cost of colonialism and the cost of these practices of segregation that may not be so upfront in our minds. Those histories of violence are still ever present and still experienced every day by some folks.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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