Macdonald: Progressive in his day

More enlightened and compassionate than the Americans

While the Americans went to war with the Native population, Macdonald sought peace. As he noted in 1885, "We acquired the North-West country in 1870. Not a life was lost, not a blow was struck, not a pound nor a dollar was spent in warfare, in that long period that has since intervened. I have not hesitated to tell this House, again and again, that we could not always hope to maintain peace with the Indians; that the savage was still a savage, and that until he ceased to be savage, we were always in danger of a collision, in danger of war, in danger of an outbreak. I am only surprised that we have been able so long to maintain peace -- that from 1870 until 1885 not one single blow, not one single murder, not one single loss of life, has taken place.”

An instinct to fairly protect - 1880
“…to wean them by slow degrees, from their nomadic habits, which have almost become an instinct, and by slow degrees absorb them or settle them on the land. Meantime they must be fairly protected.” 

Extending the Vote

In 1885 Macdonald introduced the Electoral Franchise Act that extended the vote to certain Indians (of course, the time no women were allowed to vote, an injustice Macdonald also sought to address). Following the North-West Resistance, the legislation was amended to restrict the vote in certain territories. The government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier revoked the "Indian vote" in 1898 out of fear those votes were solidly in the Tory camp. It was not until 1960 that Indigenous peoples were given the unconditional right to vote in Canadian elections.

Worried about the exploitation of the Métis

Macdonald wanted to address the legitimate needs of the Métis in a responsible manner. The Manitoba Act (1870) set aside 1.4 million acres of land for the Métis. That worked out to 240 acres of land for each child, and 160 acres of negotiable scrip to the head of each Métis family. Macdonald knew the dangers of passing out scrip: “The scrip is sold for a song to the sharks and spent in whiskey and this we desire above all things to avoid.” But political agitation from the Métis was enormous and Macdonald relented in an uncharacteristic moment of weakness. In the House of Commons, Macdonald outlined his fear: “I do not hesitate to say that I did it with the greatest reluctance. I do not easily yield if there is a better course open; but at the last moment I yielded and I said: well for God’s sake, let them have the scrip; they will either drink it or waste it or sell it; but let us have peace.”

Six Nations
It is noteworthy that Sir John A. Macdonald was made an honourary Chief by the Council House of the Six Nations Indians, the largest First Nations Reserve in Canada. The Six Nations Indian Council also sent deputations to Kingston for the burial service.

Sitting Bull
While Sitting Bull living peacefully in Canada in 1879, The Globe reported that the American Secretary of War, William Tecumseh Sherman was under orders from President Hayes to treat Sitting Bull as a British subject and that Canada would be held liable for any hostile aggressions he might commit should he cross into American territory. He had fled to Canada in 1877 where the commander of the North-West Mounted Police assured Sitting Bull that in Canada every person in the territory had a right to justice. A friendship ensued. When Sitting Bull returned to America in 1881 he was arrested and detained as a prisoner of war. Sitting Bull was killed by the American Indian Agency Police at the Standing Rock reservation in 1890.   

Movements towards self-government - 1880

“It is worthy of consideration whether legislative measures should not be adopted for the establishment of some kind of municipal system among such bands as are found sufficiently advanced to justify the experiment being tried. It is hoped that a system may be adopted which will have the effect of accustoming the Indians to the modes of government prevalent in the white communities surrounding them, and that it will thus tend to prepare them for earlier amalgamation with the general population of the country.” 

Advised to establish residential schools - Thought to help with education - 1879

"When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly impressed upon myself, as head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men."