John A. Macdonald and "presentism"

While allowing that the first prime minister’s “policy toward the Chinese cannot be defended” and that “his exclusion from the vote of those living here was an act of explicit discrimination,” Richard Gwyn, the author of a two-volume biography of John A. Macdonald, attempts to counter Timothy Stanley’s position that Macdonald was a “white supremacist.”

Tim Stanley, in his recent Citizen opinion article, is quite right to severely criticize John A. Macdonald for revising the Franchise Act to withdraw the vote from Chinese-Canadians. In my biography of him, Nation-Maker, I did the same.

But to go on to describe Macdonald as “a racist” is pure, and smug, “presentism,” or the judging of the past by the standards of the present, thereby proclaiming our moral superiority to all Canadians who lived earlier. It’s the equivalent of condemning Macdonald for not having implemented same-sex marriages. More to the immediate point, it is grossly inaccurate. On most matters concerning race and ethnicity, Macdonald was far ahead of his times and he would remain ahead for decades to come in many respects.

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