Sir John A Macdonald and presentism

Sir John A, Macdonald, Wikipedia photo
Sir John A, Macdonald, Wikipedia photo

The Canadian Establishment has begun to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Sir John A Macdonald’s birth in 1815. Prime Minister Harper even skipped events to honour the Charlie Hebdo victims in Paris so that he could be in Kingston to commemorate Macdonald’s birthday. But there is a darker story here about the man often considered to be the father of Confederation.

In December 2014, I wrote about an appearance by historian James Daschuk at an event to talk about his book Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Life. In the book Daschuk describes how Macdonald deliberately used the politics of famine to force indigenous people into submission so that Canada could build a railway and populate the West with European settlers.

Daschuk quotes Sir John from the House of Commons describing his government’s policy as follows: “We cannot allow them to die for want of food … [We] are doing all that we can by refusing food until the Indians are on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense.”

Macdonald and presentism

Jim Lang, a reader of my Pulpit and Politics blog, posted the following comment after the piece on  Daschuk’s book. “I agree strongly that European imperialism was achieved via genocide at worst, extreme marginalization at best. I’m wondering what to make of claims that in painting MacDonald as a genocidal criminal, effectively, the authors are guilty of something called ‘presentism.’ I gather this means judging historical people by today’s standards.”

I must admit that I had never heard the word “presentism” before but I indicated to Jim that I would think about this and get back to him.

Daschuk did not accuse Macdonald of genocide and he did not say precisely that Sir John A was a racist, although he surely was. Daschuk did, however, pose a question: “A glorification of John A Macdonald is underway as we come up to the 200th anniversary of his birth. How do we process this?”

Jeffrey Simpson weights in

In mid-January Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson weighed in regarding presentism. Simpson wrote in a column about Abraham Lincoln and John A Macdonald both of who he said were flawed but also great statesmen whose accomplishments are apparent in the health and survival of their respective nations.

“To judge them through the prism of their flaws,” Simpson wrote, “is to deliberately minimize their accomplishments and to engage in historical ‘presentism,’ the application of today’s standards to those that prevailed long ago.”

Simpson sees presentism being practiced by “aboriginal writers and advocates of aboriginal causes,” not to mention people in university departments. He says presentism “is always popular with those for whom history is a stick with which to beat today’s drum s of injustice and to read their particular narratives into the past.”

I respect Simpson as a knowledgeable commentator on Canadian public life but few would accuse him of being a champion of the underdog. History, not to mention the present, appears much differently when looked at from the top down up rather than from the bottom up.

Nagging questions

Among the European settlers who populated the Canadian West in the 19th century racism was ubiquitous, what academics now call the colonial settler mentality. Sadly, racism is still common place today, as we have heard recently from leaders in Winnipeg, and as I learned as a political candidate knocking on doors in Saskatoon during the four federal elections that I contested between 1997 and 2004.

A nagging question when we talk about how to judge past actors relates to both the time frame and the scope of their actions. I can’t imagine that anyone would forgive or excuse perpetrators of the 20th century holocaust. But what about the genocide committed against aboriginal people in the Americas by the Spanish conquistadores? Should they be excused because their atrocities occurred at a time when Europeans had not yet decided if indigenous people were even human beings?

In Macdonald’s case, his attitude about the inferiority of indigenous people was commonplace at the time, but the scope of his actions presents a problem for his defenders. Did he use starvation and near starvation as a weapon against indigenous people in Western Canada whose communities had been decimated by loss of the bison? Daschuk says he did and that the deliberate withholding of food to hungry people led to hundreds of deaths by starvation, and also created the conditions for a tuberculosis epidemic in indigenous communities.

I have heard no worthy refutation of Daschuk’s claim.  In fact, he has been awarded the Sir John A. Macdonald Prize for a Canadian book of history judged to have made the most significant contribution to an understanding of our past.  This is highly ironic but it also means that Daschuk has written a good book.

Myth of decency

History is less than valuable if it does not inform the present. If we are not to beat Sir John “with a stick” to quote Jeffrey Simpson, can we at least learn something here that is applicable and useful today?

Daschuk thinks we can.  “White Canadians have not heard this story. We have this myth of decency, friendliness, and helping our neighbours,” he told his audience in Ottawa. “But in our relationship with indigenous peoples we have not been decent. I live in hope that we will become more open-minded about what is going on in Canada.”

 

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Dennis

Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer, blogger and a former member of Parliament

4 thoughts on “Sir John A Macdonald and presentism”

  1. Dennis, great reflections! Here’s wonderful quotation by the famed British tory historian, Herbert Butterfield, on the uses – & the abuses of history – & the issue of “presentism” or “whig history”:

    “History is all things to all men. She is at the service of good causes and bad. In other words she is a harlot and a hireling, and for this reason she best serves those who suspect her most. Therefore, we must beware even of saying, ‘History says’ or ‘History proves’ … as though indeed history, once she had spoken, had put the matter beyond the range of mere human enquiry. The truth of history is no simple matter, all packed and parceled ready for handling in the marketplace.”
    [Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History, (1931), pp.131-132]

  2. I haven’t read the book myself yet and would like to see more comments about it from historians who specialize in that place and time. The historical story is always more complicated than as reported in the media.

    This review seems good, and points out that Daschuk doesn’t use the words “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” very much.

    http://reviewcanada.ca/magazine/2013/10/ethnic-cleansing-canadian-style/

    I think probably the federal government used and withheld rations more with the intent of controlling the people than eliminating them, but it’s arguable. John Tobias wrote about a specific group in “Canada’s Subjugation of the Plains Cree”:

    http://utpjournals.metapress.com/content/a517305704311026/

    1. Thanks for your comment Val and for the links to other resources. I will read these with interest and would in particular welcome comments from historians familiar with this period of Canadian history.

  3. While it may not be ‘fair’ to judge those of the past by present standards, we must also be wary of giving them a pass. We also gain much needed insight into our progress, if any, when we use today’s standards to examine the past.

    The reality is that this was an era seeing the rise of care for other living things. Although animal welfare societies and laws seem to appear before similar child welfare societies and laws, there is little doubt that the attitudes that seemed to prevail in the federal government were already being contested. I think it’s instructive that, according to this book, the Hudson Bay Company was doing a better job of working with the Indians and caring for the environment than Ottawa.

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