Sir John A. Macdonald was super racist — but so was everyone else in 19th century Canada

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Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, gets a lot of flack for having been a pretty racist dude. So, for the man’s 200th birthday, I tried to put his racism in the context of his (crazy racist) epoch.

The full story is here, but here’s my top three findings.


1. He openly acknowledged that he, and pretty much everyone else in Canada, were racists. 

“On the whole, it is considered not advantageous to the country that the Chinese should come and settle in Canada,” said Macdonald. “That may be right or it may be wrong, it may be prejudice or otherwise, but the prejudice is near universal.”


2. Nobody, not even Macdonald’s progressive rivals, got a free pass out of Racist Town. 

George Brown, Macdonald’s chief political rival, had a solid anti-slavery track record and urged racial harmony between Toronto’s whites and blacks.

At the same time, though, he also told Torontonians to distrust Jews, Catholics and the Irish. As refugees from the Irish Famine streamed into British North America, Brown wrote that these half-starved migrants were as much of a curse on Canada as “were the locusts to the land of Egypt.”


3. His policies were unnecessarily brutal on Prairie First Nations, and he set the stage for the horrid state of modern Aboriginal relations. 

In addition to being Canada’s first and longest serving prime minister, Macdonald remains the country’s longest-serving aboriginal affairs minister.

Serving in the post from 1878 to 1888, he laid the groundwork for basically every institution now blamed for the horrid state of Ottawa-aboriginal relations: The Indian Act, Indian Residential Schools and an over-bureaucratized Department of Indian Affairs.

“First Nations people in Saskatchewan, I would bet you $5 to a person, consider Macdonald the agent of their subjugation,” said University of Regina professor James Daschuk.