Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is outraged. “A mob has torn down and defaced the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald in Montreal,” he Twitter-raged on August 29. “This vandalism of our history and heroes must stop.”
As most Canadians know by now, people in Montreal, following examples of similar popular take-downs of unpopular racist leaders from times past, forcibly pulled a statue of Canada’s first prime minister to the ground.
Responsible for “this kind of violence,” in Kenney’s estimation, are “those on the extreme left” and “roving bands of thugs.”
But Mr. Kenney appears ready to take matters further than mere condemnation of the take-down. “If the City of Montreal decides not to restore Wade’s statue of Macdonald to where it has stood for 125 years, we would be happy to receive it for installation on the grounds of Alberta’s legislature.”
The whole affair, of course, plays easily into Kenney’s lazy nationalism and western Conservative chauvinism, both borne of an imagined understanding of Canada’s history. For Kenney, it’s an open opportunity to “stick it” to a Quebec government opposed to the Alberta premier’s favoured pipelines, to defend Macdonald himself—whom he imagines was a true blue Canadian Conservative icon who might have found common cause with Conservatism, Kenney-style—and to position himself as a principled defender of law and order from “lefty socialists.”
At the same time, it’s a perplexing position for a self-described defender of western interests to take.
John A. was in fact no friend to the west.
Strangely, Jason Kenny appears set to champion the very architect of the historical west’s subservient position as little more than a colony of central Canada’s financial interests.
One of the key planks in Macdonald’s famous National Policy, rolled out in 1879, was a high tariff wall protecting central Canadian manufacturing interests. Naturally, the tariff was hated by western farmers, who complained that the policy forced them to buy what they needed on a protected market, while selling their produce on an unprotected one.
Another key plank in the so-called National Policy was the building of a transcontinental line, the famous Canadian Pacific Railway, that knit the fledgling nation together. This too was much hated by western farmers, who complained of unfair freight rates and monopoly pricing guaranteed by Macdonald’s government, and fattening the pocketbooks of CPR industrialists in central Canada.
The west’s entry into Confederation on Macdonald’s watch also specifically denied the region’s rights to its natural resources. The west was barred from profiting from sub-surface rights to any riches beneath the soil, which remained in federal hands until the Natural Resources Transfer Agreements in 1930.
Sir John A. also created a national police force—the forerunner of today’s RCMP—that essentially served as an agent of central Canada’s colonization of the west.
Many have long noted, quite appropriately, that John A. was a racist. But, some say, he was merely a product of his time. Everyone was racist in those days, right?
That’s not quite true either, however. Yes, a lot of privileged people were racists in late nineteenth century Canada (unfortunately, too many Canadians still are today). But John A. was well-known even in his own day as having racist views that were well outside the even then overtly racist norms.
Kenney approvingly quotes in his tweets the late journalist Richard Gwynn as saying ‘No Macdonald-No Confederation.’ This is a ridiculously simplistic view, (and betrays a fundamental misapprehension of Canadian history).
For one thing, Macdonald was a relative late-comer to the Confederation story; there were many people who were far more enthusiastic about the idea of a transcontinental union than was Macdonald.
What’s more, the reasons behind Confederation in 1867 (or the Transfer of the Great Northwest to Canada in 1870 for that matter) were complex, and simply cannot be reduced down to the actions of any one person.
In the end, Mr. Kenney seems to be explicitly claiming an icon who, through his government and his policies, deliberately made the west subservient to central Canadian financial interests.
Kenney is playing fast and loose with the past for his own political ends. Unfortunately for Alberta’s students, this is just the kind of celebratory and nonsensical history that the United Conservative Party’s curriculum review panel is preparing to start doling out in Alberta schools.
Eric Strikwerda teaches Canadian history at Athabasca University. He is the author of The Wages of Relief: Cities and the Unemployed in Prairie Canada, 1929-1939 (AU Press, 2013). At present he is working on a history of western Canada following Canada’s acquisition of the region in 1870.