top of page

Take Down The Statues: Sir John A. Macdonald.

January 11th is National Sir John A. McDonald Day. Coincidently, our theme for January 2021 is "Decolonize My Mind". So let's have a look at one of Canada's Founding Fathers. Our MAR Blogger, Becky Leyva who is a descendant of colonizers but mom to biracial children, gives us a summary of her research and understanding.

Black and white photo of Sir John A Macdonald circa 1875

But whether you believe him to be a hero or not depends on if you believe creating and sustaining a colonial government, through genocide and slavery, is a just cause in the first place.

I would like to acknowledge that I am a descendant of colonizers, writing this on the traditional territory of the Tsawwassen and Musqueam First Nations and of all the Hun’qumi’num speaking people who have been stewards of this land since time immemorial.

January 11th. A national day designated for John A. Macdonald; Canada’s first prime minister. Macdonald is a much-celebrated man whose image we see everywhere we go—from stamps and currency, to official portraits and statues—but whose dark history makes him a polarizing figure who is wholly undeserving of an annual national observance.

Who was John A. Macdonald (really)?

John A. Macdonald was the first prime minister of the country we now know as Canada. Considered by many to be the father of colonization, Macdonald is often lauded as a brilliant politician and successful prime minister (he held office for almost 20 years until his death in 1891). He has been described as a man who was perfectly suited for creating and sustaining a colonial government in a new land. His legacy, in the eyes of his supporters, is one of a heroic founding father of our country.

But whether you believe him to be a hero or not depends on if you believe creating and sustaining a colonial government, through genocide and slavery, is a just cause in the first place.

John A. Macdonald according to Indigenous historians and allies.

Mi’kmaq historian Daniel Paul, the author of We Were Not the Savages (1993), believes that the “legacy” of John A. Macdonald should be relegated to history lessons and nothing more, retiring him from his hero status in this country.

Paul says, “John A. was a full believer in white supremacy [...] In Canada at the time, the white population, the majority was behind him. So his philosophy of keeping Canada an Aryan nation was shared by a great many Canadians.”

According to historian James Dashuk, Macdonald “...built the country. But he built the country on the backs of the Indigenous people." While Dashuk acknowledges Macdonald’s contributions to the founding of Canada, he believes that his work had horrendous consequences for the Indigenous people of the land he had colonized.

In his book, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life (2014), Dashuk examines how Macdonald realized his “National Dream'' through capitalizing on Old World diseases, climate, and Canadian politics - the politics of ethnocide. His dream would lead many indigenous tribes to starvation and torture at the hands of his policies and political agents.

Anti-Black Racism

John A. Macdonald was not only extremely harmful to the lives of the original people living and thriving on this land before colonization, he displayed examples of severe anti-Black racism. Historian Constance Backhouse wrote in Petticoats and Prejudice: Women and Law in Nineteenth-Century Canada (1991) that Macdonald supported anti-Black racism by pushing for the death penalty for rape "on account of the frequency of rape committed by negroes, of whom we have too many in Upper Canada. They are very prone to felonious assaults on white women". This accusation was based solely in prejudice and not backed by criminal statistics. This tactic was used to create fear of Black people amongst the white population and as an easy way to kill Black men for little proof would be needed to convict.

“Biological Racism” towards Chinese immigrants

Indigenous and Black people were not the only groups to be targeted by Macdonald’s policies. He not only created the Chinese head tax, a fee on Chinese people trying to immigrate to Canada after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, but also introduced the concept into Canadian ideology of “biological racism”. He believed Chinese people were biologically inferior to white people, even arguing these beliefs in the House of Commons, in his fight to refuse voting rights to Chinese people.

Residential schools

Macdonald’s political aggression to control Indigenous people was significant and violent, including starvation tactics and the creation of residential schools as a nationwide program of assimilation in 1883—an action that is now classified as a genocide. Macdonald was quoted as saying to the House of Commons:

“When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with his parents who are savages; he is surrounded by savages[…] He is simply a savage who can read and write."


“I have reason to believe that the agents as a whole … are doing all they can, by refusing food until the Indians are on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense."

Some may argue that he was no more sinister than anyone living at the time, but many of his contemporaries are quoted as being appalled at his policies. He was also the only person speaking publicly of an Aryan nation at the time.

Erasing History?

What does this more complete account of history and movement for change mean in a modern context? Statues were not only erected as an act of reverence but they were also put up to remind the oppressed who had the power. Though some argue that taking down statues “erases history”, this is not the case. The history we have learned has been whitewashed. It has been told solely through the lens of white colonizers. It is missing the experiences, stories, wins, and losses of all the other groups - Indigenous, Black, and People of Colour. To remove the statues of historical figures who committed atrocities against another group cannot erase the past but it IS a small and necessary step toward acknowledging the harm caused. It is only the beginning of the reparations owed and the least that can be done to begin to make things right.

Statues in John A. Macdonald’s likeness have been erected all throughout Canada. Many of these statues, thankfully, have recently seen their final days as Indigenous activists and anti-racism protesters are fighting to have these figures removed.

Don’t be an apologist.

Finding out someone you admired and thought was a good person actually isn’t, well, that’s a hard pill to swallow. It is even harder when the character of that person, and the things they did, contribute to your own sense of identity. Many people are proud to be Canadian. Canada is geographically beautiful. And, by many accounts - for a good majority of the people - a safe, respectful place to live especially in comparison to some other countries. But Canada was built for white people. It was built for white people, at the expense of Indigenous, Black, and People of Colour, through the policies and accomplishments of Sir John A. Macdonald. White people note his accomplishments with reverence. One such biographer, author of 1989’s Sir John A. Macdonald: The Man and the Politician, Donald Swainson wrote: "He not only helped to create Canada but contributed immeasurably to its character."

From a decolonized perspective, this quote rings true but not in the glowing manner as intended. Macdonald helped to create a colonized Canada; a place that values its white settlers over its original peoples, and remains that way today. His federal policies were excessively racist (even for the time) and contributed to the erasure of Indigenous language, culture, and an unknown (un-recorded) number of non-white human lives. Macdonald was a founding father, alright, a founding father of systemic racism and oppression.

There are many Indigenous historians, authors, and activists doing brilliant work to shine a light on Canada’s full history; its real history. As residents of Canada and (as many reading this are) descendants of these colonizers, we must learn the true history and uplift the stolen voices of the Indigenous people around us. We must work toward knowing the truth and we must work toward reconciliation; toward reparations.

One action we can take is to de-throne the abhorrent men who have been wrongly immortalized in the statues, buildings, and streets named after them. Recognizing their deeply racist and harmful histories removes their hero status and begins to put us on the right path to re-writing their stories in a more honest way that is inclusive of diverse perspectives.

This blog merely touches on the history and atrocities of John A. Macdonald and colonization as a whole. There is so much more to be said about the prejudice, inequality, and racism Indigenous folks continue to experience. We strongly urge you to look to Indigenous authors, historians, artists, and makers to hear their stories, to honour their resilience, and to support their work.

Below are some resources to get you started:


Moms Against Racism Canada:

Our theme this month, for January 2021, is Decolonize my Mind. Here are links to our book list, Colonization Analogy blog post, and two events happening later this month.

Event: January 17th | 2:30 PM PST - Reclaiming Powwow with Karen Pheasant-Nagingwane

Event: January 22nd | 7:30 PM PST - Cultural Competency with Symbia Barnaby

Book Lists

Indigenous Educational Websites

National Film Board Movies

264 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page