Was John A. Macdonald a white supremacist?

History professor Timothy Stanley says our first prime minister was a white supremacist.

In 1885, John A. Macdonald told the House of Commons that, if the Chinese were not excluded from Canada, “the Aryan character of the future of British America should be destroyed …” This was the precise moment in the histories of Canada and the British Dominions when Macdonald personally introduced race as a defining legal principle of the state…

Macdonald’s comments came as he justified an amendment taking the vote away from anyone “of Mongolian or Chinese race.” He warned that, if the Chinese (who had been in British Columbia as long as Europeans) were allowed to vote, “they might control the vote of that whole Province” and their “Chinese representatives” would foist “Asiatic principles,” “immoralities,” and “eccentricities” on the House “which are abhorrent to the Aryan race and Aryan principles.” He further claimed that “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.” For Macdonald, Canada was to be the country that restored a pure Aryan race to its past glory, and the Chinese threatened this purity.

Colby digs up the debate in Hansard.

I confess I was previously unaware of Macdonald’s comments, but they have been previously noted—see here, here, here and here (click on “did you know?”). Some of Macdonald’s comments were also mentioned, four years ago, in an essay Christopher Anderson wrote for the Canadian Parliamentary Review about the Chinese Immigration Act.

Although calls for “repressive measures” against the Chinese – including their forced removal from the country – were made time and again in Parliament through into the 1880s, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, while he personally opposed such immigration, appointed two separate commissions of inquiry to investigate the situation in 1879 and 1884. Once the CPR was completed, however, the government introduced changes in May 1885 to the proposed Electoral Franchise Act before Parliament to deny any person of Chinese origin the right to vote in federal elections. 

John A. Macdonald justified this action on the grounds that the Chinese migrant “is a stranger, a sojourner in a strange land … he has no common interest with us … he has no British instincts or British feelings or aspirations, and therefore ought not to have a vote.”9  Moreover, if given the vote, he warned, the Chinese would likely elect a sufficient number of Chinese-origin MPs in British Columbia to force the rest of the country to adhere to their “eccentricities” and “immorality.”10 The Prime Minister’s move received strong support from a number of MPs (especially those from British Columbia), but it also sparked some vocal opposition.  For example, L.H. Davies (Queen’s) argued that “If a Chinaman becomes a British subject it is not right that a brand should be placed on his forehead, so that other men may avoid him.”11 For his part, Arthur H. Gillmor (Charlotte), while he did “not think they are a desirable class of persons,” argued all the same that “as British subjects, we ought to show them fair play.”12  Despite such protests, however, the motion was carried.  For reasons that are not clear, such voices became mute when the House turned to consider the government’s legislation to restrict Chinese immigration two months later.

Stanley’s piece comes after the Harper government renamed an Ottawa parkway in Macdonald’s honour. Stanley suggests that decision should be reconsidered.

In his announcement last week that the Ottawa River Parkway was being renamed for Macdonald, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird expressed the hope that it would stimulate Canadians’ interest in their histories. Perhaps interest in the histories of all Canadians would lead Baird and the federal government to reconsider whether in a multiracial, multi-ethnic society like that of Canada today, we should be naming public monuments after white supremacists.

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