Making Peace Vigil

Standing up for peace


Posted by strattof on January 8, 2015

January 11 2015 will mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister. The federal government is spending close to $1 million to celebrate Macdonald and his legacy, which includes:

  • Negotiating Canadian Confederation in 1867;
  • Overseeing the completion of the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885, which convinced BC to join Confederation and stopped US annexation of the province.

As a result of these accomplishments, Macdonald is often hailed as the father of the Canadian nation. They are not, however, Macdonald’s only legacy.


We are taught in school about Macdonald, the nation-builder. By the time we are teenagers, most of us know about Macdonald’s fondness for drink and the bribery scandal that forced his resignation. We may also know of the racist head-tax he imposed on the Chinese immigrants who helped build the railway.

Almost erased from history, however, have been his racist and genocidal policies against Indigenous peoples.


In 1878, Macdonald implemented a policy of starvation, with-holding food from First Nations living in Canada’s vast resource-rich prairie region until they moved onto reserves. In Macdonald’s words: “We are doing all we can by refusing food until the Indians are on the verge of starvation.”

The goal of the policy was to clear the plains of First Nations so as to make way for the transcontinental railroad and make the plains available for white settlement.

Thousands died as a result of this genocidal policy.


Macdonald was a passionate advocate for residential schools. In 1879, his government founded a publicly funded residential school system. In 1884, it made school attendance compulsory for all First Nations children. Thousands of children died from neglect, abuse, malnutrition, and disease while attending these schools.

Genocide, as defined by the United Nations, includes:

  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.

Canada’s residential schools, the last of which closed in 1996, constituted genocide.


Like Macdonald, Riel is a father of Confederation. As part of his struggle for Métis rights, Riel negotiated the terms under which Manitoba joined Confederation in 1870.

Macdonald had no interest in Métis rights, but only in securing land for white settlement. At his insistence, Riel was executed by the state in 1885 for his part in the North West Rebellion.


Why bring to light these disturbing truths about Canada’s founding? We need to know about our history because it forms the basis of on-going white settler privilege and the worsening of conditions for Indigenous peoples.

In terms of policies toward Indigenous peoples, how different is Canada today from Macdonald’s 19th century Canada?


  • The health gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada, set off by Macdonald’s starvation policy, persists. Life expectancy for Indigenous peoples is 7 years shorter than for non-Indigenous Canadians.
  • Funding for schools on reserves lags behind that of other schools by between $2,000 and $3,000 per student. Is it any wonder only 40% of on-reserve students graduate from high school, compared to 88% of other students?
  • Imprisonment is a recurring theme in the experience of Indigenous peoples. Residential schools were essentially prisons for children. Today, Indigenous people are vastly over-represented in the Canadian prison system. Studies show that Indigenous people are sentenced to longer terms; spend more time in segregation and maximum security; and are less likely to be granted parole.
  • 1,180 Indigenous girls and women have gone missing or been murdered in the last 30 years. The Harper government refuses to hold a national public inquiry. What if 1,180 white women had been murdered or gone missing?
  • Gaining access to resources on First Nations land remains a priority of the Canadian government. It is the reason Canada continues to refuse to honour the Treaties it signed with First Nations. It is also why the Harper government has mounted an attack on existing environmental protections that stand in the way of resource development on First Nations territory. 

Each of the above is an indication of systemic racism in Canadian society, which has the effect of maintaining white privilege.


Indigenous peoples have been struggling for justice ever since the beginning of the European colonial occupation in the 1600s. The rest of us need to support their calls for Treaties to be honoured; for self-determination and sovereignty; for resource-sharing; for truth, restitution, and reconciliation. For justice!


BOOKS (available at Regina Public Library)

  • The Inconvenient Indian, Thomas King (2012).
  • Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, James Daschuk (2013).
  • Indivisible: Indigenous Human Rights, Joyce Green, ed. (2014)
  • The Comeback by John Ralston Saul (2014).

ARTICLES (available online)

  • “When Canada used hunger to clear the West,” James Daschuk, Globe and Mail, July 19 2013.
  • “What Canada committed against First Nations was genocide,” Phil Fontaine and Bernie Farber, Globe and Mail, Oct 14 2013.
  • “A Twelve-Step Program for a Post-Colonial Future,” Joyce Green and Michael Burton, Canadian Dimension, Nov ‒ Dec 2013.
  • “Should we really be celebrating Sir John A. Macdonald’s birthday?” by Avvy Yao-Yao Go Brad Lee, Toronto Star, Jan 13 2014.
  • “Pedestals and Politicians,” Christopher Moore, Canada’s History, April – May 2014.
  • “Old Macdonald,” Stephen Marche, Walrus, Jan ‒ Feb 2015.

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