Sir John A. remembered despite having failed Indigenous Canadians

The traditional yearly commemoration of the death of Sir John A Macdonald by the Kingston Historical Society (KHS) went forward Sunday, Jun 6, 2021 with obvious caveats. The event occurred in a pre-recorded Zoom presentation with the public, the first of its kind since the ceremony was cancelled last year (another first) due to the pandemic.  

Sir John A. Macdonald. Photo credit William James Topley.

In his opening remarks, host Don Richardson, secretary of KHS, was careful to acknowledge, “The comments I make now were taped on June 2, but the remaining portions of the commemoration ceremony were taped on May 24, days before the horrific situations at Kamloops came to be known. The Kingston Historical Society agreed that it is absolutely critical that the following comments be made.”

He went on slowly and carefully pronouncing each word, “All-consuming grief, palpable sorrow, anger, horror, questions with no answers, anguish: these are not the words which I would normally use on behalf of the Kingston Historical Society in beginning today’s service of commemoration to Sir John A Macdonald. They are, however, rendered absolutely essential in light of the recent discovery of the burial site of 215 indigenous children found at a residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia.

“We cannot begin to imagine the horror experienced by the families of so so many indigenous peoples. And it is a horror shared by all Canadians,” he said.

Further, Richardson went on, “For thousands of indigenous families, children were cruelly and inexplicably ripped from their ancestral home, snatched from the arms of their parents, in a wholly misguided attempt to integrate the ‘Indian’ into mainstream Canadian society. The lie of that experiment lives on today, so many decades, so many centuries later.”

The guest speaker was former Canadian Senator Hugh Segal, whose remarks recorded Monday, May 24, 2021, are transcribed below.

Sir John A. Macdonald’s hearse, Cataraqui Cemetery, Kingston, 1891.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository.

Richardson began the ceremony with a land acknowledgement, then put the ceremony in historical context, explaining the “tradition began 129 years ago, one year after Macdonald’s death in 1891. The first form of Memorial tribute took place here at Cataraqui Cemetery in 1892. And that was organized by the Macdonald club of Canada. This was later organized by the Conservative Party. The Kingston Historical Society took over the graveside ceremony in the 1970s and we have continued to carry on this fine tradition — a tradition that saw only one cancellation, and that was in 2020 because of the restrictions related to COVID-19. The ceremony here, on this day, acknowledges the legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald and permits many members of our community to pay their respects on the anniversary of his passing.”

On behalf of the Kingston Historical Society and its June 6 remembrance committee, Richardson said “I would like to take this opportunity to recognize the outstanding contribution of those who have made this day possible. Our hosts, board and management staff of the Cataraqui Cemetery, Parks Canada, the financial support of the Murney Tower Museum, the technical expertise of Craig Pettus, and the invaluable support of Dr. Duncan McDowell, and Paul Van Ness.” He also thanked Eva Barnes and Peter Gin for prodigy photos to enhance the historical context of the ceremony.

Remarks on the commemoration of the death of Sir John A. Macdonald, by Hon. Hugh Segal, OC, OOnt, CD

“History tells us we pay tribute to a great and good politician. No politician, however compelling his achievements, is only great and good. There is always another side. History seeks to reflect accurately on historical events and time.

For all of Sir John A’s leadership, creativity, and determination to shape a country of four colonies — a country that has on balance been a force for good in the lives of millions — the frame of reference that drove his work was not one that recognized the sense of injustice and lack of obligation that Canadians now understand to be essential to the reconciliation and respectful partnership with First Nations. Sir John A. did nothing to stop the residential schools put in place before he was Prime Minister. That there was hunger and suffering on the part of indigenous people during his time is not something we should treat lightly.

The 19th Century was what it was: for all the vision, expansion, growth and progress associated with the Victorian era, that vision did not include any sense of fairness or justice for First Nations residents of Canada or even the United States, to say so clearly and forthrightly now is and will always be necessary. The fathers of confederation took root and succeeded in a 19th Century where humility and compassion and understanding of our Indigenous peoples were not part of the political culture. It would be wrong today to ignore that fact. 

Sir John A. was known among his political and parliamentary colleagues, and during his career as ‘Old Tomorrow.’ His span of immense political capacity was rooted in the realities of the past and present in these forums, his vision for what was coming next, and what might be required. As we commemorate the 130th anniversary of his death, reflecting on what could come next seems only right. It is what Sir John A. would want us to do.

In this, I take my advice from a First Nations leader of great achievement, who has rendered a lifetime of service to First Nations, to the judiciary, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And was the first indigenous member of the judiciary and met and served all of Canada with distinction in the upper chamber, the Honorable Murray Sinclair. The newly appointed Chancellor of Queen’s University put his views on how to rebrand to address the commemoration of John A. with these words, and I quote, ‘There are a lot of Indigenous people who have made a positive contribution to this country, to their people, and to the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, who have largely been ignored by history, and who deserve to be honoured and commemorated just as much as Sir John A., and we should be talking about what to do about them.”

 Sir John A. was the leading father of Confederation. However, had the colonies and militias and regular British forces failed to repel the Americans who invaded our territory in 1812, there would not have been colonies for Sir John A. to unite into Confederation and create the Dominion of Canada. Those who repelled the American invaders we’re not alone. 

Without First Nations and Metis allies who joined in the fight to propel the Americans, the battle would have been lost. First Nations chiefs like Tecumseh, Chief John Norton, Chief John Brant, among others, made all the difference. First Nations including the Mohawk, Wendat, Haudenosaunee, Ojibwe, Iroquois, and others played seminal roles in key battles: the battles of Chrysler Farm, of Ogdensburg, of Lundy’s Lane, of Shadowgate to repel the American invaders. Without their courage, bravery and leadership, it is highly unlikely that Generals Brock, or deSalaberry, who we do celebrate, would have been successful in the defence of Canada.

I view those First Nations chiefs as grandfathers of Confederation, and it is high time they receive the tribute and commemoration they too deserve. Historical societies here and elsewhere should lead the campaign for that to happen, as should the Canadian department of Heritage.

 It is important, and to the credit of our mayor and council here in Kingston, that local First Nation leadership has been asked for their advice and naming the new third crossing, uniting the southeast and southwest corners of our community across the Cataraqui. It is the largest capital and construction project in our community. And having it named in tribute to Indigenous history will be an important building block for the future.

Bridges are always symbols of working together and it is bridges that we need to keep building. Despite Sir John A’s effort to afford First Nations the right to vote, that right only emerged when John Diefenbaker was Prime Minister many decades later. The generation Sir John A. was part of did not build bridges with First Nations. Our generation must never fail to do so. 

The first prime minister to ever apologize to First Nations for the calumny of residential schools was the Right Honorable Stephen Harper on June 11, 2008, with First Nation chiefs seated before him in the House of Commons. It was, in my view, the best day of his career as prime minister. 

That the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the multi-billion dollar fund for compensating survivors of those schools ensued, while important facts of history, is not sufficient. Building real bridges that recognize our obligations to First Nations will require continued effort. Our entire society in this country must shoulder that debt and obligation in respectful partnership with our First Nations brothers and sisters. 

And we must recognize that Canada would not be here at all, would not be part of our common heritage, were it not for the efforts of the politician, former MP for Kingston, who lies buried steps from where I stand. Commemoration is an important part of using the past, with all its victories and setbacks, to build a better future. The best possible way to commemorate the good and bad of our collective past is by building genuine bridges of understanding and empathy to our collective future. 

It is an honour to pay tribute to the ultimate father of Confederation, not because he was perfect because he was not, but because he gave his life in the service of Queen and country and helped build Canada, a country that, for all its flaws, remains the envy of millions around the world.

“Tecumseh and Brock at the Surrender of Detroit.”
From the original watercolour painting, by A. M. Wickson.

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