On Sir John A. MacDonald, Conservatives, Vergangenheitsbewältigung and Working Through Canadian History: the Approach Conservatives should take to Canada’s past

I believe that History matters. History matters because it teaches us how to be better. History provides us with the very best and worst lessons of what people are capable of. Just look at Nelson Mandela. He was one of many people who brought an end to Apartheid in South Africa. In South Africa today, he is now called Madiba and seen as the father of Modern South Africa. However, none of that changes his story. None of that changes the Treason Trial where Mandela was found to be not guilty of sedition; nor does any of this change the Rivonia Trial. None of President Mandela’s successes changes the fact that he initially used peaceful protest nor does it alter his move to sabotage and criminal behaviour against property. Nelson Mandela’s story is the story of a man’s political fight against a system which didn’t recognize his humanity and the ways in which one can push for change anyways. Each step in Nelson Mandela’s story is what makes history and what makes his story special. History matters because it can give us people like Nelson Mandela, as long as we tell their story honestly and openly.

This is why I love the word Vergangenheitsbewältigung. It is a German word that tries to describe the “working through or public debate within a country on a problematic period of its history”. Coined by those who studied National Socialism in Germany, the word should have been what Erin O’Toole, Jason Kenney and many other conservatives should have appealed to in the midst of the tearing down of statutes which depicted Sir John A MacDonald. Instead of saying that Sir John A MacDonald was a hero or a perfect man, instead of saying “This vandalism of our history and heroes must stop”, Premier Kenney and Erin O’Toole and many others; they should have engaged in Vergangenheitsbewältigung.

If those Conservatives had engaged in Vergangenheitsbewältigung, then they could have argued that Sir John A. MacDonald was no different than any other Canadian Politician during his time. As Don Smith pointed out in an article “Toronto’s forgotten role in the creation of the Indian Act” , when Sir John A. MacDonald was Attorney General of Canada West in the Assembly of the Canada’s in 1857, he presented a simple law: The Act for the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes in the Canadas. The precursor of today’s Indian Act, The Act for the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes in the Canadas, was passed quickly and nearly unanimously almost a decade before Confederation. In the fractious Legislature that was formed in 1840 to represent Upper and Lower Canada, this Act was so uncontroversial it sailed through without controversy. 

Present day Conservatives could have made the argument that “all the major political leaders supported the legislation: George-Etienne Cartier, his great Conservative Party political ally; as well as his opponents, Liberals George Brown and Antoine Dorion. Assimilation of the First Nations was seen as an instrument of freedom, not of oppression”.

If they had done their homework, Premier Kenney and Erin O’Toole could have pointed out that no Act just said through the fractious Parliament of the Province of Canada. In fact, the colonial Parliament worked so badly that most of its Members were only too happy to hijack “Maritime Union” conversations that were happening in Charlottetown in 1864. Yup, things were so bad in Upper and Lower Canada that New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, PEI and Newfoundland were needed to balance out the parties. So, it is easy to see that most of our forefathers had beliefs which we would not listen to today. If Present day Conservatives had engaged in Vergangenheitsbewältigung, they could have argued that Canada has an unsavory, undesirable and ugly past; a past that should be acknowledged because we are better than what our forefathers were. 

Present day Conservatives could have argued that while our forebearers had done wrong, we had learned from their mistakes. They could have argued that we have grown past our mistakes, past the Head Taxes, the Segregations, the Slavery, the Internments, the Genocidal Behaviour and the wrong we had done. They could have argued that the acts of the Canadian Government were wrong when we turned away the Komagata Maru in 1914 and the MS St. Louis in 1939. Conservatives could have argued that we would no longer turn the descendents of the Komagata Maru because they were Hindi and Muslim passangers. O’Toole could have argued that the passengers of the MS St. Louis – 907 Jewish passengers escaping Nazi Germany – would not now be turned away because of anti-semitism. No longer would the skin colour or religion of a passenger be the tool or reason for a government decision.  Erin O’Toole could have said that we are now better than this. Premier Kenney could have said the same. But no Conservative did.

Modern provincial and federal Conservatives instead choose to argue that the “extreme left wing” were to blame. Modern provincial and federal Conservatives went for the small argument of rhetoric, partisanship and ugliness rather than work through the reality of Canadian History. Rather than reach for the principle of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, Statesmanship and work off the history that is, modern Conservatives reached for the smallness of petty complaint, accusation and sanctimonious outrage. These Canadian Conservatives, instead of learning from the past, chose to acknowledge the great achievements of Sir John A. MacDonald; while not also admitting his faults.  Sir John created a nation and trampled many Indigenious people in the process. Erin O’Toole could have said this but he didn’t. Premier Kenney should have declared this but he didn’t. 

Modern conservatives could have equally argued that the NWMP and its descendant – the RCMP – were tarnished from birth. Often raised in the same breath as Sir John A., the NWMP/RCMP is just coming to reckon with its abysmal human rights record from Indengious engagement to Political Freedom to Women’s Rights. Yet, O’Toole, Kenney and Doug Ford could have argued that that same organization after 1874 protected Aboriginal Sovereignty by ensuring that “Montana” (i.e. American) whisky traders would no longer massacre them. Alberta’s UCP and the Federal Conservative Party could have also noted the NWMP/RCMP vital role in ensuring Canadian Sovereignty as well. If conservatives had engaged in Vergangenheitsbewältigung, we could be reminded of that. 

Or, those same conservative politicians could have reminded us that in 1880s:

“Macdonald wanted native people to gain the franchise, an act at that time of immense symbolic importance, without losing any of their rights under either the Indian Act or any of their treaties. The second, which attempted to extend the vote to women, was an international “first” (or close to the first: women gained the vote in eighteenth-century revolutionary France, but only briefly; the Isle of Man gave women the vote in 1881).” (Richard Gwyn: How Macdonald almost gave women the vote; Jan 14, 2015).

Modern conservative Canadian politicians could remind us that his contemporary, Benjamin Disraeli, a Prime Minister of the UK in 1879 called our first Prime Minister “A considerable man.” But they didn’t.

It is a shame that modern Canadian conservatives didn’t take the lead from men like Sir John A MacDonald. We know that he would have practiced Vergangenheitsbewältigung because the formation of Canada was just such an act. The arguments around Confederation caused Sir John A to change his long held position. He had to work through the past – the Royal Proclamation of 1763, the Quebec Act of 1774, the Act of Union of 1840 – to come to understand that Canada could include Newfoundland, PEI, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

If you are not convinced, there is another story that comes to mind. In it, Sir John A. was – as many of his stories go – drinking too much. In the middle of a debate, he threw up on stage. One of his opponents was speaking, at the time; and, Mr. MacDonald’s reaction was stunning. He laughed and said that his opponent’s words were so vile that his stomach turned. The audience went from being appalled to laughing. Or put differently, Sir John A worked through his own personal fault. He worked through his point of difficulty to ensure that it became something else. If he could do that; others should have learned from him. Premier Kenney and Erin O’Toole should have learned from him, they should have learned from our country’s history; but they didn’t. Instead, Canadian conservatives have been unimaginative and political. Instead of being Statesmen, like Sir John A., Canadian conservatives have been small; and it is sad. 

It is sad because our history is peppered with capable Statesmen and some exceptional citizens. From Laura Secord to Sir John A., from Viola Desmond to Rt. Hon. Kim Campbell, from Lougheed and Davis to Diefenbaker and Pearson, Canada has had exceptional leadership. Most of it has happened because Canadian Politicians have been able to push forward and do the hard thing. In recent years this has meant engaging in the act of Vergangenheitsbewältigung. In 1989, Brian Mulroney formally apologized in the House of Commons for Japanese Internment. In 2005, Paul Martin formally apologized for Italian Internment. Or one can think of the act of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, when one wants to think about our relationship with Aboriginal Canadians. From the passage of the Constitution Act (1982), every Prime Minister since has helped to move reconciliation forward. So much so that Prime Minister Stephen Harper was able to apologize for the Residential School System. Since 1967, we have moved toward acknowledging our sins and trying to work through them. Our working through these problems has never been fast enough, but it is Vergangenheitsbewältigung in action. 

So why is it so hard for Erin O’Toole, Jason Kenney and other Conservatives to change and practice Vergangenheitsbewältigung? I don’t know. But it is obvious to me that without it they will not acknowledge Canada’s full and true history, a history with its success and its blemishes. Without acknowledging those blemishes, we can never truly understand the strengths. Without understanding the blemishes, we don’t understand that Canada is better when we protect minorities. Without understanding the wholeness of our history, we – modern day descendents of Canada – cannot appreciate when we leave people behind; nor can we excel as we can when all Canadians participate in the economic, social and political benefits that Canada is blessed with. Canada has always been better when we work towards a balanced approach of majority rule, but not at the cost of any particular minority; of listening, witnessing and being generous of spirit and of soul. Our history, warts and all, is not without problems. However, I for one, am proud of where we are going together. Our History Matters and only in understanding it – all of it – can we get to a better place. 

2 thoughts on “On Sir John A. MacDonald, Conservatives, Vergangenheitsbewältigung and Working Through Canadian History: the Approach Conservatives should take to Canada’s past

  1. “Yup, things were so bad in Upper and Lower Canada that New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, PEI and Newfoundland were needed to balance out the parties.”

    “the Act of Union of 1840 – to come to understand that Canada could include Newfoundland, PEI, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.”

    Newfoundland was never in the discussions in any way. It was a separate colony of Great Britain, and then a separate country dominion for a while, then due to no money became a colony again. Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949. It was the British who let the US have two (three by some counts) giant military bases there during WW2. So Nfld was not involved with the original formation of the Dominion of Canada at all. You should excise reference to it completely in this essay.

    So, a bit of a giant blooper there! More reading required. And PEI, where the 1864 meeting to sort of begin Confederation was held, wasn’t impressed by all the yakking. They didn’t join Confederation until 1873, lured by money after a recession.

    I live in Nova Scotia, and we got a bit of our history in school back in my day, which was late 1950s, early 1960s. NS was a big cheese place in those mid 19th century days, soon subsumed by the nitwits in Upper Canada after Confederation due to early metal manufacturing skills imported from the USA. (If a one-liner can sum it up) Do you know the history of the Cunard Steamship Line?

    So far as your main thesis goes, I tend to agree with it in a philosophical way. But it’s a bit airy-fairy, because if you analyze the reasons for the build-up of Upper Canada and the use of Lower Canada as a labour source and business HQ in Montreal, British investors attempting to make money were what ran Canadian politics. Britain wanted to keep what became the dominion well away from Yankee interests. Macdonald was well in bed with British business interests; Laurier the Liberal who came along after him was the true “Canadian”, and far more independent minded, both with Britain and the USA. So I think your idea of Canadian history is not all that grounded in reality, and may instead reflect an idealized notion you have dreamt up by yourself. Not the first time I’ve noticed you really don’t know our history at all! Grab a high school text for the idealized version. Go to the Rising Tide Foundation online for the gritty details.

    Nevertheless, the Progressive Conservatives were decent Canadians for many decades, but the neoliberal era beginning 40 years ago was when they turned into a pack of howling wolves under Mulroney, only interested in regression, paying low wages, privatization of public assets at knock-down prices, ripping off the economy/resources and flogging it off cheap to foreigners, and becoming people I have zero interest in being associated with. Less than zero, actually. I actively try to diss them, and you live where the chintziest little sociopath of all is in charge, ruining the place by not addressing the future for the citizens who reside there, merely banging the table for oil and gas, a dead industry. Vision for the future is what Conservatism lacks by its very name; it wants societal stasis or regression, pooh-poohs the arts and really is only interested in money, the more the better. Environmentalism gets in the way of easily making it. If we want to really lay blame, I’d say Conservatives are the people First Nations are referring to when the old saying was current — “white man speak with forked tongue”.

    NB. Typo — “accel” — surely you meant “excel”


    1. Dear Bill,

      In terms of Canadian History, I can honestly say that most of my words are backed up by other more knowledge journalists, historians and notable figures. I have a whole bookshelf of books on Canada History, but for brevity sake you might want to pick up one book – 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal. Written in pretty good detail, it is merely one source that talks about how Canada came to be. The Original 1864 Charlottetown Convention was held to talk about an Maritime Union. This speculative union was to include 3 players: PEI, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Then the Province of Canada invited themselves along. Newfoundland was subsequently invited but did not have enough time to put together a delegation. By 1865, in Quebec, there are five players: Newfoundland, the Province of Canada, PEI, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. All of those delegations have input into the British North America Act of 1867 and the deal is done by the five colonies. This is why Newfoundland has 6 seats today. When Newfoundland joined Canada in 1967, they were allowed to have the same deal that they negotiated in 1865.

      But back to 1865. After the deal was done in Quebec, politics takes over. Before, Newfoundland and PEI acted, the Colonial Legislative Bodies of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick passed the bills approving of “Confederation” and then went to elections. Since, “anti-confederates” won the day in both provinces, the Legislatures of PEI and Newfoundland failed to bring Confederation to a vote. Consequently, PEI joined Confederation in 1873 with slightly better terms than they negotiated in 1865 and the same for Newfoundland in 1967. So my “take” on history is just a retelling of the facts as they stand.

      Thank you though for the typo, I will correct it shortly.


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