At the latest Rotary Club of Picton meeting, David Warrick spoke on the cultural context surrounding Sir John A. Macdonald’s historical veneration.
Warrick is a member of the Macdonald Project who commissioned the statue of Canada’s first prime minister that now sits on Picton Main Street. Warrick is also a member of the recently formed Sir John A. Macdonald Working Group, operating as an offshoot of the Prince Edward County Heritage Advisory Committee (PEHAC).
He has been vocal in his belief that the statue, despite being the focus of much public ire, should remain in place.
Though the focus of late has been mostly on Macdonald’s draconian policies with regards to Indigenous peoples, Warrick shifted focus to some of the more laudable aspects of Canada’s first prime minister.
While speaking to Rotarians, Warrick expressed firm resolve that history should be discussed, meanwhile iterating that a discussion within the working group lacks keys elements of Macdonald’s past.
“On the working group that reports to PEHAC on what to do with the statue…there is no opportunity for me to speak to the history of the accusations at all,” said Warrick.
Warrick also referenced an online petition that he stated presents an untrue picture of Macdonald.
In speaking about Macdonald’s actions, he stated there are two things that need to be considered, cause (of events) and context.
Throughout his presentation,Warrick contextualized the actions of Macdonald by providing examples of misdeeds perpetrated by leaders elsewhere, particularly in the United States.
Rather than being a nation born of conquest and conflict, Warrick argued that unlike our friends to the south, Canada’s first prime minister steered Canada towards less brutal beginnings.
“Canada was not created by revolution nor conquest…in contrast approximately 800,000 people died in conflict during the creation of the U.S…In Canada, the number is under 400” said Warrick.
In explaining why there seems to have always been a dividing line between Canada and the United States, Warrick pointed to Macdonald.
“Sir John A. Macdonald worked with all peoples of all nationalities and religions. He tried to avoid conflict and was always willing to compromise,” he argued.
Drawing further comparisons, Warrick referenced Andrew Jackson, U.S. President from 1829-1847 who forced several Indigenous tribes across that country to relocate to one particular territory. The relocation is now referred to as “the trail of tears”.
And, for better or worse, while the U.S. Government was busy disposing of treaties, Macdonald worked to enact several.
“In 1871, he began the first of 11 treaties with Indigenous peoples of the west, the same year that President Grant cancelled hundreds of treaties and made Indigenous people wards of the state,” said Warrick.
From the ground up, he described two divergent approaches to colonialism that would eventually give rise to what we now know as Canada and the U.S.
Having described the backdrop against which Macdonald rose to his reign as prime minister, Warrick itemized many of his achievements, most notably the creation of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which was made possible when Rupert’s Land-roughly one quarter of the continent-was sold by the Hudson’s Bay Company to Britain.
“Unquestionably, without the CPR, there would be no Canada,” Warrick stated.
Other achievements noted by Warrick included the creation of the Northwest Mounted Police in 1873, who were, as Warrick stated, to bring law and order to the west and ensure that treaties were honoured and Plains Indians (including Sioux) were protected from unscrupulous American traders.
Also of note in Warrick’s presentation was Macdonald’s failed introduction of the Electoral Franchise Act in 1885 that would allow women and Indigenous peoples to vote along with the creation of Banff, Canada’s first national park.
In speaking about residential schools, Warrick noted that these were actually established in New France and New England in the 1700s-long before Macdonald’s reign.
“Schools for Native Canadians were voluntary under Macdonald’s term in office, but were available when requested by Indigenous peoples through the 11 treaties beginning in 1871,” Warrick stated.
He added that church run residential schools operated during the term of 20 prime ministers, and that it wasn’t until after Macdonald’s death that these schools became compulsory.
During a question and answer period after Warrick’s presentation, he fielded a question from Rotarian Andy Janikowski referencing Warrick’s work on the Sir John A. Working Group.
“I’m concerned that you said you do not have a voice and you said you are muted as part of the deliberations…is that right,” asked Janikowski.
Warrick replied that the focus of the group is on what should be done with the statue rather than the impetus behind having the statue in the first place, i.e. Macdonald’s legacy, whether good, bad or ugly.
“I asked the mayor what the purpose of the working group was and the reply I got is that it is not about Canadian History, but rather about what we’re going to do with the statue,” said Warrick.
Warrick left Rotarians with a quote that could be seen as summarizing Macdonald’s view on the hierarchy of race in this country, made during his address to the House of Commons in 1890.
“There is no paramount race in this country; there is no conquered race in this country; we are all British subjects, and those who are not English are nonetheless British subjects on that account,” said Macdonald.