Saddened by Sir John stance

Posted on August 27, 2017 in Equality History – News/Local
August 25, 2017.   By WAYNE LOWRIE, Postmedia Network

A Brockville historian says he is angered and saddened by Ontario elementary school teachers’ demand that the name of John A. Macdonald be removed from school buildings.

Brian Porter, a Macdonald expert who portrays the nation’s first prime minister at events across Canada, said the teachers’ emotional rhetoric shows their ignorance of Canadian history.

“In my view, a lot of the teachers themselves know little or no Canadian history so it’s easy to get caught up in a highly emotional situation like this,” he said.

Porter, a retired teacher who was once a member of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) that advocates expunging Macdonald’s name from schools because of his treatment of aboriginals, said he is upset by the union’s extreme language that will only “increase the racial divide and intolerance in this country.”

Like all historical characters, Sir John A. must be viewed in the context of his time, Porter said. He suggested that people have to view Macdonald’s accomplishments and shortcomings over the sweep of his 47 years in politics.

“The true story is not just one aspect that we didn’t handle very well. The true story is the big picture and what was actually going on at the time,” he said.

Macdonald’s government struggled with the native question, as has every Canadian government since Confederation, Porter said.

In his day, Macdonald was a moderate and liberal-minded man who had excellent relations with the Indians of Eastern Canada, Porter said.

In fact, Macdonald sponsored a bill to give the vote to Eastern Canadian aboriginal men despite widespread opposition from the public and the Liberals. The bill passed but was rescinded by Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s government after Macdonald’s death, he said.

(Porter also noted that Macdonald also introduced a bill – never passed – to give women the vote, an idea that was decades before its time.)

Macdonald’s relations with the Western Indians were much more troublesome, Porter said. He and most people in Ottawa had little understanding of the issues facing aboriginals in the West at the time.

The Plains Indians were a nomadic people who depended on the rapidly disappearing herds of buffalo for their livelihood. Macdonald met the challenge by signing treaties and establishing reservations, he said. Agents were sent in to teach the natives how to farm.

In contrast, Americans met the same problem with extreme violence in wars that continued for 20 years, Porter said.

As for the contention of the teachers’ union that Macdonald was the “architect of genocide against Indigenous Peoples” because the first residential schools were introduced during his time, Porter notes that the schools were obviously a bad idea. But he said that there were no government social services at the time – the only social programs were handled by churches.

The overriding focus of the government’s Western policy at the time was the fear of American annexation. Porter said the American press, Congress and public were clamouring for the United States to take over the Canadian West. After the Civil War, America had millions of battle-hardened soldiers, it had just purchased Alaska from the Russians and was trying to buy British Columbia, it had a transcontinental railway that wanted to branch out northward and U.S. whiskey traders were heading to Canada to sell to the natives.

Against these pressures, Macdonald led a country of just 3½ million with no railway and limited financial resources, Porter said.

The fact that Macdonald was successful in staving off the American threat and keeping the country together is a tribute to his leadership skills and vision, he said.

“This is a difficult country to govern – always has been and always will be – and issues are coming at you all the time. Macdonald’s focus was to build a nation, to build a foundation and consolidate it,” he said.

Porter said that Sir John A. Macdonald’s legacy should be viewed in that context.

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