Canada continues to wrestle with its dark colonial history. Its first Prime Minister John A. MacDonald has been censured for his racist policies. Yet MacDonald, a Scot, was recently praised by the Scottish government. In this essay, Calum MacLeòid details Canada’s efforts to address its past and argues that Scotland must do more to recognise its colonial links.  

In First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s Canada Day statement, only one individual was singled out for praise: the first Prime Minister of Canada, Sir John A. MacDonald. Ms Sturgeon referred to the Glasgow-born MacDonald in glowing terms: “We are deeply proud of the role that so many Scots like Sir John A. have played towards the building of the great Canadian nation.” The Canadian media included the First Minister’s comments in their coverage of Canada Day. Similar pride is also evident in reference to MacDonald in the introduction of the Scottish government’s latest Canada Engagement Strategy 2016-2021, which was published this March.

Leaving Glasgow when he was five, MacDonald is credited with bringing about Canadian confederation, an event which the Canadian federal government has spent over half a billion dollars commemorating through its initiative ‘Canada 150’. This consisted of a series of high-profile events celebrating the 150th anniversary of confederation, culminating with a musical extravaganza which took place on Canada Day, July 1st, on Parliament Hill in the nation’s capital. However, as Sir John A MacDonald’s reputation appears to be on the rise in Scotland, his legacy is coming under increasingly intense scrutiny in Canada.

Three nights before the Canada 150 concert, police clashed with a group of indigenous rights activists who tried to erect a teepee on Parliament Hill to highlight the continued mistreatment of their communities. The police withdrew and the teepee was erected, but not before ten protesters were detained. The teepee was later moved but then was incorporated into the Canada Day events. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau even visited it for a photo.

This series of events is an unintentionally accurate representation of the Canadian state’s relationship with the indigenous peoples as the nation celebrates the closest thing it has to a 150th birthday; Mounties clashing with indigenous activists and their supporters, permitting them to erect their teepee, only to later move them on further away from the Parliament but closer to the main stage, where the event they are protesting is being celebrated.


June 21st was previously known as National Aboriginal Day, until this year when Justin Trudeau announced that it was being renamed National Indigenous People’s Day. On that freshly renamed day, he also announced some other name changes: the building on Parliament Hill which housed the Office of the Prime Minister and the Privy Council, referred to as Langevin Block, would also be renamed. Earlier this year, Calgary City Council voted to rename the city’s Langevin bridge, as Reconciliation Bridge.

Both of these structures were originally named in honour of Sir Hector-Louis Langevin, who served a number of prominent ministerial roles in John A. MacDonald’s government, and is seen as the architect of the Canadian Indian Residential Schools system. This was a network of government-funded and church-run boarding schools, founded in the 19th century. They were explicitly designed to remove parental influence of indigenous peoples over their children and so speed their assimilation into colonial Canadian society.

As the consensus on the damage of these schools grow, so too grows the damage of the reputations of those involved in the creation and implementation of the residential school system. Amidst the debate that these renamings have prompted, there are signs that the focus of anger may be shifting away from Langevin alone and towards MacDonald.


Most people hearing the term Truth and Reconciliation would associate it it with South Africa or Chile, rather than Canada. What aspect of Canadian history could possibly require the same approach that was taken in the aftermath of a dictatorship or apartheid? The answer is: residential schools.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was established in 2008, part of a wider effort to address the historical abuse inflicted on Canada’s indigenous people. It published its report in 2015. The report confirmed much that had already been detailed by survivors. Conditions for the indigenous children removed from their communities and placed into Canada’s residential schools were horrific. Abuse was rife, sanitation was poor, and little effort was made to prevent the spread of disease. By the start of the 20th century, the mortality rate in some schools was over 50%. The report details that 3,201 children are known to have have died during their time at these schools. The Commission’s chair estimated that the true figure could be closer to 6,000.

Due to the practice of burying students in unmarked graves, along with poor record keeping, identifying the true number of children who died or went missing as a result of this system may prove impossible. In 2009, the Commission requested additional funding from the federal government to further investigate this aspect of the residential schools’ legacy, particularly at sites identified as previous locations of these schools. The Canadian government denied this request.

Idle No More protesters marching in Victoria, British Columbia in 2012. Image: Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 2.0]

The Commission’s report found that over 150,000 indigenous children – from First Nations, Métis, and Inuit families – were placed in these schools, often against their parents’ wishes. In the majority of these schools, children were forbidden from speaking their language and from practising any form of their own culture. The last of these schools only closed in 1996 and the report estimated that there could be as many as 80,000 former students alive today.

While these schools were designed to assimilate children, they often succeeded in severing childrens’ links to the languages and practices of their families. At the other end of this system, the assimilation envisaged by MacDonald and his supporters proved impossible for many, often as a result of both the impact of their traumatic experiences within the schools and the underlying prejudices they faced from a society unwilling to accept an indigenous person as their equal.

While John A. MacDonald alone cannot be blamed for the prolonged existence of these schools, which stretched many decades after his death, he was the Prime Minister when they were created, as noted in the preface to the Commission’s report. Given MacDonald’s own professed beliefs, it seems that he was more concerned with simply destroying the indigenous aspect of these children than in creating assimilated Canadians.


Earlier this summer, protests took place on Parliament Hill, this time at the statue of MacDonald. In a performance piece, University of Regina professor David Garneau held a silent conversation with the statue, while dressed as Métis leader Louis Riel. Still regarded as a hero by many Métis and Quebecois, Riel had led both the Red River Rebellion in 1869-70 and the North-West Rebellion in 1885 against Canadian expansion. Following the failure of the latter, it was MacDonald that insisted that Riel be hanged, “though every dog in Quebec bark in his favour”.

In his 2013 book Clearing the Plains, James Daschuk argues that MacDonald’s obsessive desire to build the Canadian Pacific Railway through the plains resulted in Canadian officials withholding food from indigenous peoples who refused to abandon their ancestral land and move to reserves to accommodate MacDonald’s plans. As a result, thousands died while MacDonald boasted that this population were kept on the “verge of actual starvation”.

MacDonald was the only member to use the term “Aryan” in the Canadian House of Commons in the 1870s and 1880s, and the only member to argue that Europeans and Asians were different species.

His treatment of Chinese immigrants also demonstrates that MacDonald’s antipathies were not limited to indigenous populations. During the debates surrounding the 1885 Electoral Franchise Act, MacDonald – an immigrant himself – argued that Chinese immigrants were incapable of becoming Canadian, and amended his own legislation to ensure that the franchise was not extended to “a person of Mongolian or Chinese race”.

As the historian Timothy J Stanley has shown, MacDonald was the only member to use the term “Aryan” in the Canadian House of Commons in the 1870s and 1880s, and the only member to argue that Europeans and Asians were different species. The parliamentary record shows clearly that these were not unanimously accepted views and that despite the commonality of racist beliefs at that time, MacDonald went further than most.


Canada in 2017 has different borders and a different flag and national anthem to the country that was confederated in 1867. But it still faces many challenges stemming from the past. This is particularly evident among the indigenous communities, who have higher rates of incarceration and suicide than the non-indigenous population. This year, the projected life expectancy for Canadians is 79 years for men and 83 years for women. Among the Inuit population, it is 64 years for men and 73 years for women.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report made 94 recommendations. The federal government claims to have initiated some sort of action on 41 of the 45 recommendations for which it has direct responsibility. One recommendation the government has started work on concerns the issue of murdered or missing indigenous women. In December 2015, it launched an independent national inquiry into the matter. Activists had been leading the way on this cause for many years before the government agreed to the inquiry. The Native Women’s Association of Canada collected information on 582 cases of missing and murdered indigenous women. Indigenous women and girls represent 10% of murder victims in Canada despite being only 3% of the population. The inquiry is expected to submit its final report in November 2018.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau giving a speech on missing and murdered indigenous women in front of parliament in Ottawa, 4th October 2016. Image: Delusion23 [CC BY-SA 4.0]

At the end of last year, it was estimated that as many as one quarter of the population living on First Nation reserves were living with Drinking Water Advisories notices from the government, advising that their water must be boiled before use, or in some instances not used at all. Nearly half of the Advisories have already been in place for over five years.

There is no single indigenous people of Canada and some refuse to accept any Canadian state can be legitimate. For them, the ‘Canada 150’ celebration will only ever represent an insult. Others are more comfortable with considering Canada to be part of their identity, but frustrated and angry by the erasure of the indigenous contribution towards the existence of Canada.

In his own Canada Day statement, Trudeau recognised that: “for many, today is not an occasion for celebration. Indigenous Peoples in this country have faced oppression for centuries. As a society, we must acknowledge and apologise for past wrongs, and chart a path forward for the next 150 years.” While apologies don’t provide clean drinking water, there are many in Canada who have waited a long time to hear such an acknowledgement. Trudeau’s government will now have to prove whether it is capable of moving beyond mere apologies.


The comment in the Scottish Government’s Canada Engagement Strategy, that “Scots-Canadians have been at the forefront of the foundation of the Canadian state”, is beyond dispute. But there must surely be some recognition of all that was involved in the building of Canada. Those speaking on behalf of Scotland would do well to temper their claims – and their praise. They might also acknowledge the complexity of Scotland’s own legacy, and recognise that it too has a role to play in addressing colonialism.

Justin Trudeau’s predecessor Stephen Harper was roundly mocked for his claim, made at the 2009 meeting of the G20, that Canada has no history of colonialism. Claiming that Scots were at the forefront of the creation of the state of Canada, but not acknowledging the link between those individuals and the suffering that the Canadian state has inflicted, is not too different from Harper’s claim.

As its role in the Empire and colonisation is beginning to receive greater attention, it is clear that Scotland too has its own uncomfortable truths in need of acknowledgement.

There is nothing to stop the Scottish government from taking forward its own strategy, recognising our role in colonising nations like Canada, and admitting the damage caused. If we are to wait and follow the British government’s lead on this, then we could well be waiting another century-and-a-half. More work should be done to promote a greater understanding, on both sides of the Atlantic, of the distinctive roles that Scottish diaspora, immigrants, settlers and colonists had on Canada. But that work should not fall into the trap of exceptionalism.

As its role in the Empire and colonisation is beginning to receive greater attention, it is clear that Scotland too has its own uncomfortable truths in need of acknowledgement. If we are willing to address past events with honesty, we can make our own contribution towards reconciliation, in Canada and elsewhere. It is important that Scots learn about who Sir John A. MacDonald was. What is more important is that they learn exactly what he did.

Calum L. MacLeòid writes a Gaelic column for The National and his first novel ‘A’ Togail an t-Srùbain’ is being published by Clàr in October 2017. Originally from Inverness, he now lives in Montreal. Calum is on twitter at @CalumMacLeoid

Featured Photo: A protester at the statue of John A. MacDonald in Gore Park, Hamilton, Ontario, 11th January 2015. With thanks to Orazio Caltagirone and My 905 Hamilton for permission to use the image linked to their short film.



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