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Stop #8 - Baldwin Avenue

Macdonald and minorities

Map for location 8.
Baldwin Avenue
Baldwin Avenue

Historically speaking, Baldwin Avenue is one of Toronto’s most multicultural streets – a good spot to reflect on Macdonald and how he dealt with minorities, the indigenous peoples of Canada and immigrants (NOTE - It is worth remembering that Macdonald was an immigrant himself).

Macdonald was brought up with a very Scot-Anglo sense of superiority over other cultures. He outgrew his early prejudice against Catholics and French Canadians and made friends of them. His record with aboriginals was more complicated. He was not personally hostile towards them but, by today’s standard, his government’s record seems cruel and unjust.

The acquisition of Rupert’s Land in 1869 gave Canada its Western territory. The Macdonald government set about creating a first province in Manitoba, where settlements were already considerable. The new province was a mix of Métis, English Protestants and French Catholics.

Macdonald knew that there might be trouble. “All that those poor people know,” Macdonald said to George-Etienne Cartier that November, “is that Canada has bought the country . . . & that they are handed over like a flock of sheep to us; and they are told that they lose their lands. Under these circumstances it is not to be wondered at that they should be dissatisfied, and should show their discontent.”

A week after the province of Manitoba was proclaimed, Louis Riel, the leader of the Métis, established a provisional government on his own. That led to a confrontation with the government of Canada. Riel soon escaped to the United States, but the relations between his people and the government of Canada did not improve, particularly as the transcontinental railroad was completed.

Following several confrontations between the Métis and the Mounted Police, Macdonald mobilized troops in 1885 to confront them in Northern Saskatchewan. After a few battles, the Métis were defeated and Riel was later hanged for treason.

Macdonald’s relations with Canada’s indigenous peoples were always rocky. As the minister responsible for this portfolio, Macdonald was personally implicated in these affairs. He helped organize the reserves and relied on charitable institutions to deliver what little educational services would be provided to the indigenous population. Through these actions the roots of the infamous residential schools were sunk.

Macdonald was not entirely insensitive to the plight of the plains Indians who were escaping the fate of extermination in the American West. When faced with a mass starvation in the 1870s, Macdonald argued for sending supplies to the West and succeeded in delivering food and blankets to the needy even though he was harshly criticized for it by the opposing Liberals.

Sir John A. Macdonald
Sir John A. Macdonald Credit: William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada

Macdonald wanted to see Canada populated, especially where the need was particularly evident in the West, in order to demonstrate to the Americans that their neighbour to the north was a viable and stable entity. But not everyone was welcomed. Macdonald’s governments allowed for Chinese workers to come to Canada in order to build the Canadian Pacific railroad, but did nothing to help them to stay. The first federal anti-Chinese bill was passed in 1885. It took the form of a Head tax of $50 that was imposed, with few exceptions, upon every person of Chinese origin entering the country. No other ethnic group was targeted in this way.

It’s worth thinking about how Canada has changed since Macdonald’s day, or how little. Some argue that Macdonald was particularly racist, others hold that Macdonald simply reflected the thinking of his time and that, in that context, he was far more progressive than most of society. You make up your own mind.

What do you think?

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