194 Chapel Street
Macdonald the Politician
Macdonald's second Sandy Hill residence, where he lived from 1871-1875, was nicknamed "The Caddy". A spacious red-brick house complete with a vegetable garden and chickens in the heart of the suburban neighbourhood, the house is, unfortunately, long gone. Macdonald’s first of two terms as prime minister (1867-73, 1878-1891) ended in scandal while living at the Caddy. Here, we delve into the events and policies of Macdonald's political life – and the opinions others had on them. Macdonald worked towards a vision of a domesticated Canada, a country whose wildness he set out to tame. Policies of pacification and aggressive assimilation of Indigenous Peoples were a part of this vision, resulting in Indian residential schools among others.
The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR)
Goulbourn Museum, 989.10.1
Iron, glass, fabric
Canadian Museum of History, 2012.17.439
Gray Dunn Biscuit Manufacturers, Europe, Scotland
“We must remember that they are the original owners of the soil, of which they have been dispossessed by the covetousness or ambition of our ancestors,”
- Macdonald in a letter proposing the creation
of the Department of Indian Affairs*
This railway signalling lantern is one small fragment of a larger, difficult, history. The National Policy proposed by Sir John A. in 1878 bolstered the completion of the transcontinental railway that cut through Canada from the Pacific coast to Halifax. Macdonald was eager to complete this project, which would redeem his reputation that had been tarnished from an earlier Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) scandal. Despite its aim to unify Canada from coast to coast, the CPR project was contentious and has been criticized from multiple perspectives. Not only did it displace Indigenous Peoples, who were shunted into a treaty-making process, it was constructed in dangerous working conditions, resulting in significant loss of life of its mostly Chinese migrant work-force. Route changes intended to entice American partners was also a sore spot among Canadians.
Racist sentiment was commonplace and widely accepted among Macdonald and his peers. A belief in the racial superiority of caucasians was central to the development of Macdonald’s vision of Canada. Racialized policies, exclusion, and assimilation tactics greatly affected Indigenous populations and migrants of colour, like the Chinese migrant workers who helped build the CPR but were prohibited from immigrating. In his own words, uttered in the House of Commons in 1885 to oppose legislation that would allow East Asians to vote federally, Macdonald’s views are revealed “if [the Chinese] came in great numbers and settled on the Pacific coast they might control the vote of that whole Province, and they would send Chinese representative[s] to sit here, who would represent Chinese eccentricities, Chinese immorality, Asiatic principles altogether opposite to our wishes; [...] the eccentricities which are abhorrent to the Aryan race and Aryan principles, on this House.” The policy denying federal voting rights to East Asian migrants, within The Electoral Franchise Act of 1885, was passed.
Today, views such as these are often associated with racism. But is it fair to judge a 19th century figure on 21st century values? Is it possible to celebrate some of his accomplishments and condemn others or are his actions and their legacies too enmeshed to be disentangled?
Celebrating the centennial anniversary of Confederation, this commemorative biscuit tin combines many images and symbols of Canadian nationalism. Its lid shows a picturesque Parliament Hill, inscribed with the words “Heart of the Nation.” The front and back scenes depict, respectively, the Fathers of Confederation, and Jacques Cartier’s 1534 arrival and subsequent claim of Indigenous land in the name of the King of France. Two portraits of former prime ministers, both credited with adding new land to Canada’s dominion, occupy either side of the tin: Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Wilfred Laurier.
To the Dominion of Canada, Indigenous Peoples were a problem to be managed as expeditiously as possible.
By 1878, with populations of bison – a traditional food source – hunted almost out of extinction, Indigenous communities across the Plains faced starvation. The failure of measures to prevent starvation under Macdonald’s leadership exacerbated the spread of tuberculosis and brought unnecessary death and hardship to many.
Gelatin Silver Photograph: A Plains Bison
Bytown Museum, P2484
“When the Indians are starving they have been helped, but they have been reduced to one-half and one-quarter rations; but when they fall into a state of destitution we cannot allow them to die for want of food. It is true that Indians so long as they are fed will not work. I have reason to believe that the agents as a whole, and I am sure it is the case with the commissioner, are doing all they can, by refusing food until the Indians are on the verge of starvation to reduce the expense.”
- Macdonald, in response to Liberals saying
too much money was being spent on relief,
in the House of Commons in 1882*
“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.”
- Excerpt from the Famine and Pestilence
Clause of Treaty 6, signed in 1876*
(territory stretching across present-day Alberta
Macdonald was accused of accepting bribes from financier Sir Hugh Allan over the CPR contract, and was eventually forced to resign in 1873. He strongly denied the allegations, however he admitted to lapses in memory from drinking.
"Pity the Dominie; or Johnny's Return"
Library and Archives Canada
Library and Archives Canada published holdings project
Sample Chinese immigration certificates, 1899-1953
Library and Archives Canada
Department of Employment and Immigration fonds
Chinese workers on the Canadian Pacific Railway
Image D-07548 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum