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Bicentennial Redux: Sir John A. Macdonald Father of Residential Schools

Sir John A.


Note: The Edmonton Journal published my opinion piece on Sir John A. Macdonald and residential schools on Feb. 20, 2015.

Click here to read “Macdonald’s legacy not entirely golden”



(Source: Armstrong,  C.H.A. / Library and Archives Canada / C-030440)



he recent bicentennial celebrations of Sir John A. Macdonald’s birth have left me flinching in a family conflict kind of way. Part of me feels proud to be related on my mother’s side to the so-called “Father of Canada.” I am fond of an heirloom circular table, which he once used, that sits in the corner of my home office.

However, when I gaze at his somber face on our current stamps, another part of me feels embarrassed. His Canada Post portrait reminds me that I share the same blood as someone whom our history books should more rightly call “father of residential schools.” Centuries of official accounts in this country have ignored Macdonald’s role in initiating and approving the forced assimilation of Aboriginal children, which launched Canada’s residential school system.

A new, thoroughly researched hardcover book, which I edited, aims to correct the popular image of this crusty politician, my ancestor, and expand our vision of Canadian history.


The book’s cover includes a before-and-after image of a “civilized” Aboriginal boy, used as propaganda to promote assimilation.

In Residential Schools: With the Words and Images of Survivors (Indigenous Education Press and Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre 2014), residential school survivor and award-winning author Larry Loyie challenges our widely accepted version of how Macdonald shaped this nation.


Under the heading “John A. Macdonald: Friend or Foe?,” he and  co-authors Constance Brissenden and Wayne K. Spear write: “His dream of a nation stretching from sea to sea had one major obstacle . . . Aboriginal people were in the way.”

Larry Loyie and Constance Brissenden

Our first prime minister and his Canadian government gained complete control over the nation’s Aboriginal people, thanks to the British North America Act of 1867 and the Indian Act of 1876.


But the reserve system, which put Aboriginals under strict government control in designated areas, was not enough to reassure early would-be settlers that it was safe to put down roots in Canada’s undeveloped west. Macdonald reasoned that Aborigines needed to adjust their beliefs and behaviors to the European way of life, starting in childhood.


Hence, he endorsed the forced assimilation of Aboriginal children, initiating the system of “Indian” boarding schools. This policy was identified as “aggressive civilization” in an 1879 report to the Canadian government.


The first official residential schools in Canada opened in 1892, a year after Macdonald ended his final term in office. But the model for these schools began more than 60 years earlier. The Mohawk Indian Industrial School, also known as the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ont., opened in 1828. It was financed by a Protestant missionary society based on the U.S. east coast. With a former British army officer in charge, the school took in boarders from the Six Nations Reserve in 1831. Children as young as five received strict army-style training.


Macdonald endorsed this military model of assimilation. Under his legacy, more than 150,000 Aboriginal children attended an estimated 144 residential schools from the late 1800s to as late as 1996. They suffered verbal, physical, emotional, and psychological abuse at many of these schools.


The co-authors of Residential Schools are determined to put Macdonald’s role within a truer, broader framework. They hope that their book, identified on the cover as “A National History,” will be used as a textbook across Canada. As a whole, it provides a coast-to-coast look at the long-term impact of colonization and assimilation policies on Aboriginal culture and traditions.


I’m not surprised that aboriginal-rights advocates this week demanded the removal of Sir John A. Macdonald’s statue in downtown Hamilton; to our nation’s Aboriginals, he is a symbol of genocide. About two dozen people staged a protest Jan. 11 in front of the statue, disrupting a local society’s celebration of Macdonald’s bicentennial birthday.


Just as Columbus Day in the U.S. ignores Aboriginal culture and presence by celebrating European colonization, Canada’s official bicentennial celebrations for Macdonald’s birthday disregarded more than a century of abusive treatment launched by our first prime minister’s policies.


“The hidden history of residential schools must be known to ensure the human rights of all Canadian children,” says Loyie.


It is vital that in the telling of history, whether it’s of a nation or a family, we are honest about the influence, in all its forms, of a prominent figure. Otherwise, we present only a whitewashed version of the past, which does a disservice to us all.

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January 20, 2015 at 11:52 am
  • February 23, 2015 at 6:44 pmCandace Campo

    Very insightful. Thank you for the blog. I truly appreciate your personal connection and analysis to history and to McDonald.
    I am a direct decendent of a war Chief and although it is not the same, it is of value to find your historical roots and place onesself
    Firmly within as an assessment tool and opportunity to reflect. In anthroplogy it is refered to as finding your subject position location. I use it to assess my own views, opinions and values or preceived comprehension in historical and present day settings and with my relationships with others.
    I learned a great deal reading you blog.

  • February 11, 2015 at 1:28 pmLinda Baker

    Knowledge is power. And given the lopsided nature of the history we’re taught, it’s critical that information like this be as widely disseminated as possible. But everything needs to be seen in light of the prevailing norms. Everyone does what they believe – at the time – is right. Looking back, it’s easy to identify many places where those beliefs and decisions are now seen as wrong, just as the future may judge us for decisions we make now. Ours is not to defend or judge the past, but ensure the full facts allow us to learn as we go forward in a more compassionate, accepting, egalitarian way.

  • January 21, 2015 at 7:34 amPetrina

    Thank you for this post Heather. I agree that this information/book should be taught in Canadian schools.

  • January 20, 2015 at 8:34 pmJan DeGrass

    For all that the first residential school was in Ontario (what a slap that must be to the proud history of Brantford!) I have found that many people in Ontario, my age and younger, know nothing or very little about the schools. We seem to have learned more about that history on the west coast.

  • January 20, 2015 at 6:02 pmDavid Roche

    Thank you Heather. Very well written, powerful without being ranty (as I tend to get). Great truthtelling, great writing as always from you. Please keep it up!

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