MacDonald Agonistes: on contemporary moral judgments of residential schools

Some discussion seems necessary given the moral condemnation of Sir John A. MacDonald and Hector Langevin for the establishment of the residential schools system. What was official government policy in the 1880s was condemned as a matter of government policy in 2008.


MacDonald articulated the original rationale for residential schools nearly 140 years ago, in a discussion of Supply in the Committee of the Whole House.


In the current century, Prime Minister Harper stated that Mac Donald’s approach “was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country”. Chief Justice McLachlin described MacDonald’s approach as “cultural genocide”.


Most would agree with the contemporary condemnations of MacDonald’s approach. Transported in time to face a contemporary investigation of his actions, Sir John A might have been mystified. From his perspective, he might note that:

• He was trying to solve the problem of starvation, disease and poverty among aboriginal peoples (caused by white immigrants and their governments), by integrating them into the social and cultural structure of the time; he was trying to help rather than hurt;
• Religious leaders, having great societal influence, not only supported his objectives but participated in attempting to carry them out. Religious schools for indigenous children existed as early as the 1600s.
• There were no apparent voices, in the Commons or in the Press, stating that this was a misguided and morally wrong approach.


So let us consider whether the contemporary moral condemnation of MacDonald is justified. And in raising this consideration let us also consider:

• Under what circumstances should the moral standards of the present apply to historical moral decisions; and
• What were the alternative courses the government could have followed to address the problems of starvation, disease and poverty amongst aboriginal peoples.


To the first question, note that in criminal court cases, one searches for criminal intent. Was the action, in the mind of the perpetrator, intended to cause harm? Here there was no such intent; MacDonald in his own words was attempting to improve the situation of aboriginal peoples, by attempting to transform them into European peoples. That the effort was misguided does not mean that it was morally wrong. Indeed, amongst dominant cultures, cultural imperialism was considered a moral necessity.


Amongst the authoritative voices of the time – religious leaders, political leaders, distinguished individuals – there was little if any voice in opposition to this strategy. Of course the authoritative voices did not include any spokesmen for aboriginal peoples, but it was normal that decisions would be made in many areas about them and for them, rather than with them. The Commons debates at the time of the MacDonald quotation did not challenge MacDonald’s thinking, indeed some speakers supported it with anecdotes of ‘Indians’ who prospered with Western ways.


What European or American moral theory would have supported acceptance and support for a culture other than that prevailing in European thought?  There’s a case to be made from the premise “all men are created equal”, but the exception cited is the same as given for enslavement of blacks: these are inferior peoples, not entitled to human rights.  What needs to be corrected is not the philosophical premise, but the cultural assumption of species superiority.  The cultural assumption is the basis of the moral error we identify today, but at that time the assumption was rarely challenged.


Was there a best practice – once a decision was taken to colonize a country – to give some rights to the peoples who were displaced or disenfranchised in the process?  Clearly what happened was far from a best practice, though it was far from a worst practice: starvation or extermination was also an option.


What options were available to the governments of the day to engage creatively and compassionately with indigenous populations? Leaving the country was not an option; neither was cessation of colonization. What were their choices?

• Accommodation
• Assimilation
• Starvation
• Extermination


Accommodation was not on anyone’s radar at the time. No way one would say: “Gosh we didn’t realize you needed all or most of this land for the way you have chosen to live; we’ll go home”. Nor was integration of Europeans into an established indigenous nation; Europeans insisted on their values and codes.  MacDonald does appear to have used starvation as an effective  threat to gain land title.  These are the tactics of the colonizer, which MacDonald (and every other European) was.


Once it is clear that colonization is going to take place, then the question is: “What to do with the indigenous peoples?”


In the residential schools condemnations, there are two elements. One is the overall concern about assimilation – cultural imperialism or cultural genocide. The other is the pattern of callous and abusive behaviour, including physical abuse and sexual assault.


European immigrants believed in their racial and cultural superiority. Hence, assimilation was not about the destruction of an indigenous culture, it was about elevating indigenous peoples to the ‘superior’ European culture. Politicians were well aware of what they wanted to achieve: the “savages” needed to “acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men”. It was indeed a  serious moral error to assume superiority of one culture over another, but that was a general characteristic of 19th Century colonialism throughout the world. That superiority was supported by leaders of the dominant religions.


The intentions of the government of the day were good in the terms of the culture of the day (even though we consider that cultural assumption morally wrong). Of course those government intentions would support the evangelical aims of religion and the commercial objectives of those who influenced governments. Cultural superiority often makes good holy and mercantile sense.  There was commercial mendacity in government decisions where land was to be developed; that is the way the system worked at the time.  Remember, much of the country was in the hands of a corporate interest (The Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson’s Bay) before Confederation: corporate greed had Royal approval.


Clearly there is no defence of the abusive behaviour in residential schools (including horrible living conditions). However, it does not appear that legislators were aware of this for some time. Unfortunately, once they were aware it appears that there was a concerted effort to ignore negative reports, enabled by the government decision to cease the collection of statistical information.


Appreciation and acceptance of other cultures is a relatively new phenomenon. Colonialism, in effect, presupposes the inferiority of the occupied nation and culture. MacDonald’s thinking was in the mainstream of Canadian culture. We were all righteous bigots then.


Don’t hold MacDonald responsible. Hold the times responsible. Don’t do it again.


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