A century-old monument to Canadian racism and colonialism has fallen. As part of the defund the police protest on Aug. 29 in Montreal, protesters did what needed to be done and toppled the towering statue of Sir John A. Macdonald, the first prime minister of racist Canada. This move is part of a larger worldwide movement to bring down statues of notorious racists.
Unsurprisingly, the right wing is outraged. According to our beloved conservative Québécois nationalist Mathieu Bock-Côté, we must see this as an “ideological and linguistic Americanization of Quebec.” Does he know his history? Obviously MBC does not see the irony in defending a figure known for his hatred of francophones and Catholics! For his part, Premier François Legault has stated that “destroying parts of our history is not the solution” and says the statue will be restored and put back in its place.
The premier’s comments are reminiscent of those of his British counterpart Boris Johnson, who recently stated in the wake of attacks on statues of Winston Churchill and other British racists that to topple statues of historical figures is “to lie about our history.” Here as elsewhere, bourgeois politicians warn us. “Let’s not try to topple statues,” French President Macron tells us, because there will be “no history to review.” Donald Trump, a fervent defender of the preservation of Confederate monuments, even recently issued an executive order to protect historical monuments with penalties for those who would dare to defy him.
As we are in the midst of a pandemic that directly affects the lives of millions of workers, and as we enter the worst global economic crisis in history, our leaders and other right-wing sycophants seem more concerned about the fate of the statues than the people. Even the mayor of Montreal, the so-called leftist Valérie Plante, was quick to denounce the toppling of the statue: “Such gestures cannot be accepted or tolerated.” Fortunately for the mayor, she will be able to find support from Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who has said he is prepared to accept the statue as a refugee! After all, just because you are slashing public services and the living conditions of the working class in Alberta does not mean you cannot show some empathy!
The attack on historical statues seems to cause great suffering among the ruling class, as if these statues were giant voodoo dolls. But it is because our leaders understand very well what is going on: the current struggle against historical monuments is not simply about the past, but rather is part of a real struggle to change the present. Today’s ruling class derives its power from the fact that the ruling class of yesterday created a powerful capitalist state, built on oppression and exploitation. To attack Churchill, Macdonald, and Confederate generals is to attack the founding elements of the current rule of the bourgeoisie; it attacks the symbols of capitalist power.
In the context of the current health and economic crisis, and in the wake of the marvellous revolts against racism in the United States and elsewhere, a movement to bring down racist monuments can play an active role in giving youth and workers the confidence to overthrow the status quo. Thus, it is a question of power, as the new leader of the Conservative Party Erin O’Toole put it: “It’s time politicians grow a backbone and stand up for our country.” The ruling class is indeed afraid of the repercussions of the toppling of statues. In this case, the Macdonald statue is particularly symbolic: “Canada wouldn’t exist without Sir John A. Macdonald,” O’Toole reminds us. If the founding figure of Canada falls into the dustbin of history, the entire oppressive Canadian state is called into question.
Macdonald’s racist Canada
Let’s have a look at some of Macdonald’s history, which is too often forgotten or hidden away. In the second half of the 19th century, as Macdonald was entering the scene, the development of capitalism in Canada was pushing territorial expansion westward, along with the development of the transcontinental railway. Indigenous people, particularly those living on the Prairies, were a “threat” to business interests. For Canada’s ruling class, it was simple: either the Indigenous people “agreed” to submit or they would have to be repressed. The die had been cast for the Métis of Manitoba, who refused submission and the annexation of their territory. However, the young colonial state would have to face the courage and determination of the Indigenous people to protect their territories and defend themselves against the invader.
John A. Macdonald, who became Canada’s first prime minister in 1867, wrote in 1870 that “should these miserable half-breeds not disband, they must be put down.” He played the division card by mobilizing anglophones against Louis Riel, the “traitor” who, he said, “shall hang though every dog in Quebec bark in his favour.” With Riel hanged and the rebellion crushed in blood, the ruling class could move forward with the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
In those days it was the railroad, today it is a pipeline. Things have not really changed. To protect the profits of the oil industry, the Trudeau government sent the RCMP to crack down on the Wet’suwet’en. It is the same policy that has been adopted by the ruling class for decades, because it is the same rotten capitalist system that drives development.
The corruption of bourgeois politicians is not new either. Macdonald was forced to resign in 1873 after it was discovered that the contract to build the Canadian Pacific Railway had been awarded in exchange for a very generous donation to Conservative Party coffers.
And the horror continued. In order to clear the way for the Canadian Pacific Railway and the settlement of the Prairies, MacDonald deliberately starved thousands of Indigenous people. He explicitly ordered government officials to withhold food rations for starving First Nations on the Prairies. Indigenous people were trapped on government-imposed reserves, from which they could not leave without permission from a federal agent. The goal was simple: to force Indigenous people to sign treaties and “consent” to relocation on reserves away from the railway. As a result, between 1880 and 1885, the population of the First Nations of the Prairies dropped from 32,000 to 20,000.
In the House of Commons, MacDonald had no hesitation when it came to commending the work of public servants in keeping Indigenous people under conditions of starvation. In 1880 he said,
We were obliged to find food for them. In some instances, perhaps, the Indians have been fed when they might not have been in an extreme position of hunger or starvation, and I dare say there have been instances of imposition; but as far as I can learn the officers have exercised due supervision over the food supply. I must say, however, that it was a dangerous thing to commence the system of feeding the Indians. So long as they know they can rely, or believe they can rely, on any source whatever for their food, they make no efforts to support themselves. We have to guard against that, and the only way to guard against it is by being rigid, even stingy, in the distribution of food and require absolute proof of starvation before distributing it.
He also boasted of the savings that were being made. In 1882 he said, “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 brink of starvation to reduce the expense.”
Ethnic cleansing continued through the “cultural genocide” of the residential school system, which Macdonald set up to cut children off from their community, language and culture. It was designed to “kill the Indian in the child.” This policy, in addition to the direct violence inflicted on thousands of children, created intergenerational trauma the effects of which are still felt today.
But it was not just Indigenous people who were the problem for Macdonald. Being a member of the Orange Order, an organization for Protestant and anglophone supremacy, he defended the idea of racial superiority, threatening to attack workers of Asian origin in particular: “At any moment when the Legislature of Canada chooses, it can shut down the gate and say, no more immigrants shall come here from China; and then no more immigrants will come, and those in the country at the time will rapidly disappear… and therefore there is no fear of a permanent degradation of the country by a mongrel race.”
Again, Macdonald’s racism was rooted in the building of the railroad and the development of Canadian capitalism. Chinese workers were specifically brought over to build the railroad. They were paid half the amount of other labourers while making up the majority of the workforce. They faced a terrible toll for their labour, with approximately one Chinese worker dying for every mile of track laid. As a final insult by Macdonald’s government, the Chinese workers were written out of history by being excluded from the photo as the last spike was being driven into the rail line. This shows that there is one history that the capitalists defend and another that they wish to erase. Macdonald’s legacy involves literally writing people out of history!
Some say it is not fair to put Macdonald on trial based on the harsh judgment of the present. Rather, we should put historical monuments “in their context”, as Valérie Plante put it. However, even by the standard of his own time, Macdonald was in fact very reactionary. Following the American Revolution, Canada had become a strong bastion for royalists, colonialists and other reactionary elements.
It is utterly hypocritical for today’s leaders to denounce the “destroying of our history”. Canadian history was written by the victors, and the ruling class is the first to hide real history behind beautiful statues paid for out of the pockets of working people.
But we should also not be fooled by the fine words of “reconciliation” and the denunciation of systemic racism by the Trudeaus of this world. Macdonald himself used such fine words. “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,” he said of Indigenous peoples in an 1880 letter, acknowledging that “the Indians have been great sufferers by the discovery of America and the transfer to it of a large white population.”
Then as now, the hypocritical acknowledgment of the horrors Indigenous people face will never stop the ruling class from sacrificing them on the altar of profit.
Horror without end
Capitalist Canada was built on the annexation of territories and the extermination and assimilation of Indigenous peoples—not to mention the oppression of the Québécois, francophones and other layers of the working class. And since the founding of Canada, the capitalist class, with continued help from the federal and provincial governments, has accumulated billions of dollars stolen directly from the labor of the exploited working class.
It is time to end the horror of the capitalist system. Fighting against the whitewashing of history by bringing down statues like that of Macdonald is a good start. However, in order to really put an end to racism, it is the entire capitalist system that we must topple.