Am Bratach No. 312
October 2017

Canada’s first premier under scrutiny

John A Macdonald accused of abuse of First Nation peoples

A famous expatriate Scot with links to Rogart is the latest Empire figure to undergo a questioning of reputation. John A Macdonald, who was born in Glasgow, served as the first prime minister of Canada (1867-1873, 1878-1891). However, his treatment of the First Nations, particularly through education programmes rife with abuse, has led to calls for John A to be stripped of official recognition.

John A Macdonald’s grandfather came from Dalmore in the parish of Rogart and a memorial to John A was erected at the site of his grandfather’s home in 1968. It was opened by John Diefenbaker then Prime Minister of Canada. Every year in May, the Canadian flag is hoisted at the site and brought down again in a simple ceremony during October. Rogart Heritage Society chairperson Penny Calvert confirmed that the autumn ceremony would happen as usual this year. In her view, over-apologising for the past is not always constructive. “Different days are different ways and we have to look at how we are now”, she said.

Similar questions have been debated in Australia, where the Scottish pioneer Angus Macmillan — whose name was revered and memorialised for more than a century — has more recently been vilified for his treatment of indigenous peoples. Award-winning journalist Cal Flyn, who claims kin to Macmillan, covered the subject in a thought-provoking memoir, Thicker than Water, published in 2016. In the final chapter, Flyn writes of Macmillan: “We must hold him, and others like him, accountable for their actions. It is important to look back with clear hindsight and see what havoc they wreaked, and know that it was wrong. But before we sermonise too loudly upon the moral weaknesses of our predecessors, we must remember too what things looked like to them, so we might understand why they behaved as they did, and in doing so, ask how such things might be prevented from happening again.”

UHI lecturer and historian Elizabeth Ritchie has presented a short film about John A Macdonald for the Golspie Inn website, in which she sets his achievements in the context of some of the more negative effects of his premiership, including the trauma and displacement of the First Nations. Invited to comment on the recent controversy, she elaborates: “Heated disagreement about monuments is familiar to Sutherlanders. The ‘Mannie’, visible from Helmsdale to Tarbet Ness, continues to dominate the landscape that his money and ideas reshaped, with much distress to its inhabitants two hundred years ago. The irregularly sprayed graffiti of ‘monster’, the chipped edged of the plinth, and the protective steel grating evidence mixed opinions about what should be done with this stone legacy of the duke of Sutherland.”

In considering historical memorials, it is important to remember the purpose behind their construction. Dr Ritchie points out that, in contrast to the “Mannie” on Ben Bhraggie, the John A Macdonald monument “clearly does not intend to intimidate or dominate”. Instead, “it celebrates Scottish-Canadian links and the achievements of Highlanders”— important in a context where Gaels were told for centuries “that they and their culture were no good”. However, she acknowledges that “it is perfectly possible to both be oppressed and to oppress. We know the abused are capable of, perhaps even disposed to, becoming abusers.”

According to Dr Ritchie, the controversy over John Macdonald’s educational policies “is not just handwringing over injustices of the past. The last of the residential schools closed in 1996. The generational effects of these policies underlie the atrocious social, psychological and physical condition of reservation life for many First Nations people today.”

However, she believes that “a confident and mature society has the capacity, at the very least, to acknowledge past wrongdoing. Scots, including Highlanders, are doing that well with widespread acknowledgement of their role in slavery and the benefits that accrued to the Highlands.”

Looking at approaches to similar issues across the world, Dr Ritchie considers that there are three options for monuments to people of “unsavoury influence”. One is to remove them completely, as was done with statues to Lenin and Stalin in post-1992 Eastern Europe; another is to provide fuller interpretation — problematic, in contexts where domination may still be a daily experience; the third is to erect alternative monuments to the oppressed, such as the emigrants’ statue in Helmsdale, or the land raid monuments in Lewis.

She concludes: “There is no single solution to the problem of our society’s tendency to selectively honour the rich and powerful, regardless of their impact on the poor and vulnerable. Ordinary people — Highlanders, Scots, Cree, Assiniboine or Sioux — have usually been elided from how history is constructed through monument-building. Perhaps the way forward, both with old monuments and new, is to bring all affected peoples together for conversations and decisions about how such symbols in the landscape can be used better than we have used them in the past: how we can use monuments to promote reconciliation and justice by commemorating the abused and by celebrating honourable achievement.”

From next year, the Bank of Canada will remove John A Macdonald’s head from banknotes. He will be replaced with Viola Desmond, a civil rights activist who refused to leave a whites-only area of a theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, in 1946.  

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