Donald B. Smith: Sir John A. Macdonald's complicated relationship with Indigenous people

But Macdonald would capitalize on prairies wracked with famine. His Conservatives had returned to office with an ambitious “National Policy” that included quickly driving a railroad to the Pacific.

To do this, Macdonald effectively gave himself near-autocratic control of the prairies, including supervision of Indian affairs and the Northwest Mounted Police

“Indian matters … form so great a portion of the general policy of the Government that I think it necessary for the Prime Minister, whoever he may be, to have that in his own hands.” Macdonald wrote in 1881.

“When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with his parents who are savages; he is surrounded by savages … He is simply a savage who can read and write,” Macdonald told the House of Commons.

“In the (United States) the Indian was the prey of the frontiersman and the cattle driver, in Canada he has been the prey of the government,” Liberal MP Malcolm Cameron told the House of Commons in 1886. He charged Macdonald of being “culpably negligent” in his duties to the Indians.

Even fellow Conservative began to turn on Macdonald. In 1886, Northwest Territories politician Thomas Jackson, a self-described “follower of Sir John Macdonald for twenty-five years”, told an outraged crowd of seeing starving, half-frozen Cree turned away by government agents at Fort Qu’Appelle.

“In the case of one Indian… within two months seven of his children died because they had not the necessaries of life,” he said.

Macdonald authorized the pass system, which required First Nations to obtain permission from their Indian agent to leave their reserve. His government also criminalized powwows and potlatches. Both policies would persist well into the 20th century.

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