ActiveHistory.ca is on a three-week hiatus, but we’ll be back with new content in mid-August. During the hiatus, we’re featuring some of our most popular and favourite posts from the past year. We will also be highlighting some of the special series and papers we’ve run this year. Thanks as always to our writers and readers.
The following post was originally featured on January 7, 2015.
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.
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. 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”, 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.” 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.” 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.” 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 . . .”
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.
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