Sir John A. Macdonald's birthday cause for reflection, not celebration for First Nations

'For the past 150 years my family has been intertwined with the decisions and legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald,' says Doug Cuthand. It's a legacy that includes policies 'of starvation and coercion.'

For Indigenous Peoples, the first PM's 'policy of starvation and coercion' a harsh legacy

Sir John A. MacDonald was "the father of confederation, the architect of Canada, the guy who pushed for the treaties our forefathers signed and oh yes he also hung Louis Riel, starved our people on to reserves and pushed for the railway that changed the west forever," says Doug Cuthand. (Library and Archives Canada)

For years we lived on the west end of Saskatoon in a neighbourhood called Confederation Park. It was what real estate agents liked to call an entry-level neighbourhood.

There were lots of aboriginal families, immigrant families and working class people. We were all living in our first homes, and my family lived on John A MacDonald Road.

It was a bit of a lark to have John A as an address. 

He was the Father of Confederation, the architect of Canada, the guy who pushed for the treaties our forefathers signed and, oh yes, he also hung Louis Riel, starved our people onto reserves and pushed for the railway that changed the West forever. 

For the past 150 years my family has been intertwined with the decisions and legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald.

The newly acquired Northwest Territories were considered crucial to future settlement and railway right of way. It was necessary to sign treaties with First Nations to acquire land in the West. 

The treaties gave Canada sovereignty over the prairies at a time when American expansion was a real risk. US President Munroe was pushing manifest destiny and he wanted the border at the 55 parallel. After First Nations signed the so called numbered treaties each chief received a large union jack which he was expected to fly over his lodge, designating him as the chief and demonstrating that he and his people were loyal to the Crown. This act planted the flag on the prairies and assured that they were part of Canada. 

This policy of starvation and coercion came directly from the Prime Minister’s office.- Doug Cuthand

Now not all the First Nations bought into the idea of signing Treaty. My ancestors were members of Chief Little Pines' Band and he was among the holdouts. While the main signing of Treaty No. 6 took place in 1876 Little Pine didn’t sign until 1879.  We signed the treaty at Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills and it was Little Pines' plan that we would get a reserve in the hills. 

For two years Chiefs Little Pine, Lucky Man and Piapot held out and refused to move. We were denied rations and any assistance from the government.

Finally our people were forced to move. Piapot moved to a reserve in the Qu’Appelle Valley north of Regina. Little Pine and Lucky Man went north to the Battle River in between the present day cities of Lloydminster and North Battleford

This policy of starvation and coercion came directly from the Prime Minister’s office. 

After the Battle of Cutknife Hill in 1885, warriors and leaders were rounded up and sent to Stony Mountain Penitentiary. "Again it was MacDonald’s urging that all the “rebels” — both Indian and Métis — be harshly dealt with," says Doug Cuthand. (National Archives of Canada, Ottawa.)
Life at the Battle River wasn’t all that great either. In 1885 a delegation of chiefs and their supporters went to Fort Battleford to meet with the Indian agent to request assistance. All the people from the town of Battleford including the Indian agent ran and hid in the fort. The chiefs couldn’t control the young men who looted the town. They headed back to Poundmaker's reserve where several first nations had camped for spring ceremonies. 

What followed was the Battle of Cutknife Hill and the subsequent retreat of Colonel Otter's troops. In the weeks that followed the warriors and leaders were rounded up and sent to Stony Mountain Penitentiary. My great grandfather was a warrior chief for Little Pine and he was sent to Stony Mountain for three years. 

Again it was MacDonald’s urging that all the “rebels” — both Indian and Métis — be harshly dealt with.  

After the events of 1885 both the Métis and First Nations paid a high price. There was general repression in Indian Country. All firearms were confiscated; First Nations that were accused of taking part in hostilities were denied the right to elect a chief and council until well into the 1930’s.

People had to have a pass to leave the reserve and many people left and travelled to the United States as political refugees. Canadians are familiar with Chief Sitting Bull’s flight to Canada but few know about the people who sought sanctuary from Canada in the United States. 

Since my Great Grandfather had been sent to the penitentiary my grandfather and his mother travelled south and they lived in a large Indian camp in East Great Falls Montana. Gradually over the years the US cavalry returned the refugees to Canada with the last batch returning around the turn of the century. 

So after all this I ended up living on John A. MacDonald Road. He may have been the father of the second largest country in the world at the time, but he failed to see the potential of acceptance and partnerships with the First Nations.

Like so many of his time he saw the original people as an impediment to progress and having little of value to contribute to the new nation. His approach to First Nations is a part of his legacy that has survived with little alteration.


Doug Cuthand is an Indigenous affairs columnist, freelance journalist and filmmaker who lives in Saskatoon. He is a member of the Little Pine First Nation, Sask.


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