John A. Macdonald’s Aryan Canada: Aboriginal Genocide and Chinese Exclusion

By Timothy J. Stanley

Racisms are central to the creation of Canada through European dominance over the vast territories of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis people. A case in point is provided by John Alexander Macdonald and his enactment of Asian exclusion and the genocide of the people of the southern plains.[1]

Macdonald not only excluded the Chinese, he personally introduced biological racism as a defining characteristic of Canadianness. Biological racisms depart from older racisms by constructing allegedly natural, immutable and inescapable racial categories on the basis of supposed biological differences. Previous racisms had been based on alleged cultural characteristics that could change over time.[2] Macdonald’s fixing of difference was neither accidental nor simply the result of mere prejudice.

While debating the 1885 Electoral Franchise Act in the House of Commons, legislation he later called “my greatest triumph”,[3] Macdonald proposed that “Chinamen” should not have the right to vote on the grounds that they were “foreigners” and that “the Chinese has no British instincts or British feelings or aspirations.”[4]  When a member of the opposition asked whether naturalized Chinese ceased to be “Chinamen”, Macdonald amended his legislation to exclude “a person of Mongolian or Chinese race.”[5] The opposition object that the Chinese were “industrious people” who had “voted in the last election,” or had “as good a right [to] be allowed to vote as any other British subject of foreign extraction.”[6] This led Macdonald to make clear that Chinese exclusion was necessary to ensure European dominance.   He warned, “if [the Chinese] came in great numbers and settled on the Pacific coast they might control the vote of that whole Province, and they would send Chinese representative to sit here, who would represent Chinese eccentricities, Chinese immorality, Asiatic principles altogether opposite to our wishes; and, in the even balance of parties, they might enforce those Asiatic principles, those immoralities . . . , the eccentricities which are abhorrent to the Aryan race and Aryan principles, on this House.” He then claimed that the Chinese and Europeans were separate species: “the Aryan races will not wholesomely amalgamate with the Africans or the Asiatics” and that “the cross of those races, like the cross of the dog and the fox, is not successful; it cannot be, and never will be.” Chinese exclusion was necessary or, as he told the House, “the Aryan character of the future of British America should be destroyed . . .”[7]

Macdonald’s comments shocked his contemporaries in Parliament. He was the only member of the Canadian Parliament to use the term “Aryan” during the 1870s and 1880s, as well as the only member to argue that Asians and Europeans were separate species. The previous Canadian premier, Alexander Mackenzie, had even rejected calls for restrictive legislation on the Chinese as unseemly for “a British community,”[8] and had told the House, “To avow the principle that some classes of the human family were not fit to be residents of this Dominion would be dangerous and contrary to the law of nations and the policy which controlled Canada.”[9] When The Franchise Act reached the upper house, Senators, including some of Macdonald’s own appointments, debated whether they could get away with sending the legislation back to the House of Commons because of the invidious distinctions it enacted.[10]

Macdonald’s comments came as the final subjugation of the people of the southern plains was being completed through military force.   The subjugation of Aboriginal peoples was also a project of racialization and exclusion. Macdonald personally created the system of control over so-called status Indians that survives to this day through the federal regime of Indian Affairs.   In 1858, as Attorney General for Canada West, he introduced the Gradual Civilization of Indians Act.   Macdonald reenacted similar legislation in the first federal Indian Act of 1869, this time adding a blood quantum rule, i.e., one that removed Indian status from anyone who has only one quarter “Indian” by blood, and also requiring that women who married non-Indian men lose their Indian status. This rule directly challenged the matrilineal systems of many First Nations.   It also removed the right of First Nations communities to determine who their people were, while also allowing the government to replace traditional chiefs at the will.[11]

During the early 1880s, knowing of the dependence of the plains people on the Buffalo, whose migration had ended in 1879, Macdonald used a policy of deliberate starvation to force chiefs such as Big Bear to take treaty, while also imposing bureaucratic surveillance and control over the lives of treaty peoples through the Indian Act. In 1885, he completed the conquest of the plains through military force again the Métis and Plains Cree (remember that most of the military action was conducted by Colonel Otter again the plains Crees) and following the surrender of the plains peoples engaged in extra legal acts to ensure that those involved in the resistance would never challenge state control again. Macdonald declared twenty-seven bands to be in insurrection even though he knew that few First Nations were involved in the resistance. Innocent chiefs were arrested and imprisoned, while Aboriginal murderers were publicly executed at Battleford in contravention of the law of the time. The now conquered people were forcibly confined on reserves and were subject to an extralegal system of pass laws which prohibited them from leaving without a written pass from the Indian Agent.   He then denied rations to the people trapped on reserve, resulting in a government-organized famine.   As James Dascuk shows in his recent award-winning book, Clearing the Plains, these were deliberate acts of genocide organized by Macdonald so as to empty the plains to make them available for European resettlement.[12] Finally, as Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, Macdonald was even responsible for establishing the system of Indian Industrial Schools (i.e. residential schools) that were designed to disrupt the transmission of traditional culture while imbuing the supposed habits of European civilization in the rising generation.

Far from being the architect of peaceful progress, Macdonald pioneered some of the most ruthless practices of European colonialism and possibly the largest landgrab in the history of British colonialism.   Macdonald worked to ensure European dominance by keeping out of the country the only other group that might threaten it: Chinese land-owners in British Columbia who as he warned would otherwise have the vote and might threaten control of the House of Commons.   Thus Macdonald’s Aryan vision shaped his efforts to create a white supremacist state system, one predicated on the monopoly of racialized Europeans over state power, policies that came at the costs of the lives of the people of the plains and that brought generations of suffering to racialized Asians. These actions might be something worth reflecting upon in a multicultural Canada as we enter a period of celebrating the life of this man.

Timothy J. Stanley is professor of antiracism education and education foundations in the Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa.   A prize-winning historian, he has written extensively on racism, the Chinese in Canada and historical representation. He is currently the Interim Dean of the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, University of Ottawa.


[1] See Timothy J. Stanley, Confronting White Supremacy: School Segregation, Anti-racism and the Making of Chinese Canadians (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011) and “The Aryan character of the future of British North America”: John A. Macdonald, Chinese Exclusion and the Invention of Canadian White Supremacy,”in Patrice Dutil and Roger Hall (eds.), Macdonald at 200: New Reflections and Legacies (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2014), 92-110.

[2] Edward Beasley, The Victorian Reinvention of Race: New Racisms and the Problem of Grouping in the Human Sciences (New York: Routledge, 2010).

[3] Gordon Stewart, “John A. Macdonald’s Greatest Triumph,” Canadian Historical Review 63 (1982), 3-33.

[4] Canada, House of Commons, Official Report of the Debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada (Ottawa: Maclean, Roger & co, 1885) (Henceforth, Commons Debates), 18, May 4, 1885, 1582.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 1585.

[7] Ibid., 1588.

[8] Commons Debates, 4, March 18, 1878, 1209.

[9] Ibid., 1262

[10] Canada, Senate, Debate of the Senate of Canada 1885, volume 2, July 13, 1885, 1276-1301 and July 14, 1885, 1326-1329.

[11] See Donald B. Smith, “Macdonald’s Relationship with Aboriginal Peoples,” in Patrice Dutil and Roger Hall (eds.), Macdonald at 200: New Reflections and Legacies (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2014), 58-93.

[12] John L. Tobias, “Canada’s Subjugation of the Plains Cree, 1879–1885,” Canadian Historical Review, 64 (1983): 519–48; James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Life (Regina: University of Regina Press, 2013).

16 thoughts on “John A. Macdonald’s Aryan Canada: Aboriginal Genocide and Chinese Exclusion

  1. Where would Macdonald have gotten the word “Aryan” from? Was there some writer or philosopher or whatever who popularized the word and concept as he used it?

    If other Canadian politicians didn’t use the word, was it in use in Britain or the USA?

  2. Also, Legacies of British Slave-ownership, a project based at University College of London, links John A MacDonald to enslavement in the West Indies. His second wife, Susan Agnes Bernard, was the daughter of Thomas James Bernard, a planter connected to Lambs River Estate, Westmoreland, Jamaica. Legacies of British Slave-ownership has a searchable database. In the Imperial Legacies section, thirty-two names are listed that are connected to Canada.

  3. What about his views concerning the Chinese, the Métis, the French and other minorities in Canada?

    John A. Macdonald n’est pas un modèle. Bien au contraire !

    http://sinistrejohna2015.ca/

    Il faut avoir un culot du diable pour inviter les francophones, les autochtones, les Métis et autres minorités du Canada à célébrer cet homme qui les a méprisés et opprimés.

  4. […] Timothy Stanley has demonstrated that early Canadian statesmen—Macdonald perhaps first among them—saw the expansion of Canada as part of the dutiful projection of British and European culture across the globe. But this cultural supremacy could not be disconnected from race; it was inherent. In this way, Canada’s genocide of Indigenous peoples, along with the exclusion of racialized immigrants, epitomized Canada’s carrying of the colonial and imperialist torch passed down from French and English forefather nations. Canada was thus born on the very European imperialism that Trudeau claimed we lack. […]

  5. John A Macdonald was a part of the privileged, entitled aristocrats in Great Britain. It is unfortunate that aristocracy is still alive and well over there. There is and never was a place for aristocrats. There would have been fewer deaths as a result of their greed and brutality.

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