THE remains of 215 children were found in a mass grave in Canada last week – and Glasgow played a part.

Tristan Stewart-Robertson, who was born in Canada, is chief reporter on our sister title The Clydebank Post. Here, he explains why this is a story which has to be heard.

SOME of the children in that mass grave were just three years old. The site was a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia, and the deaths are believed to be undocumented.

Tributes at Kamloops residential school. Pic: AP

Tributes at Kamloops residential school. Pic: AP

Since the news was announced on May 28, children's shoes have been left on the steps of public buildings, churches and elsewhere. Many communities have lowered their flags to half-mast.

The school was opened in 1890 while John A Macdonald was prime minister.

Born in Glasgow in 1815, Macdonald created the policies to establish residential schools and herald more than a century of cultural genocide.

But you would not know that from the plaque honouring him in Glasgow.

Canadas $10 bill has a picture of John A Macdonald and some register their protest to his legacy by defacing it. Image courtesy Bryson Syliboy

Canada's $10 bill has a picture of John A Macdonald and some register their protest to his legacy by defacing it. Image courtesy Bryson Syliboy

It mentions his years as Canada’s first prime minister, the “large territories” added to Canada, the transcontinental railway and “settlement of the West” he encouraged.

The plaque concludes: “At his death, Canada’s autonomy, based on rapid economic development and a close British-Canadian relationship, was assured.”

Canada’s own understanding of its first prime minister has slowly changed in recent years, albeit not universally. Macdonald’s name has been erased from some schools. Some statues have been removed or even beheaded. Money with his face is defaced.

For too many decades Macdonald's legacy was described in similar terms as it is on the plaque in Glasgow.

His attitudes towards and policies against Indigenous nations living within the declared Canadian borders were in plain sight. But they were not taught in school, and the impacts and legacy were ignored by all levels of Canadian government.


The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) between 2008 and 2014 took the evidence of 7000 survivors of residential schools. Thousands more statements were taken between 2017 and 2018 for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIW).

There are thousands of pages to the complete volumes of both reports. And both have anchors from the man born in Glasgow.

Macdonald’s policies were to assimilate Indigenous peoples, most bluntly, by taking children from their families, and eradicating their culture and language through violence.

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In 1883, Macdonald told the House of Commons in Canada: “When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian.

“He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the 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.”

Macdonald’s policies were branded “cultural genocide” by a former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada - but you’d be hard pressed to find a single Indigenous person who didn’t already know that.

Historians sometimes argue we can't judge past actions by today's morals. That's like saying we shouldn't judge a past miscarriage of justice by new exonerating information. If you let injustice continue, how are you better than those who came before? Canada's colonial policies, with Macdonald as a principal architect, have spun intergenerational trauma that continues to destroy lives.

And the goal of assimilation has not disappeared since Macdonald’s first efforts. First they sent children to residential schools, then there was the “60s scoop” where children would be snatched from their families and moved to abusive schools, now the proportion of Indigenous children in care far outweighs their percentage in wider society.

John Macdonald

John Macdonald

So Macdonald isn’t just history. He’s now. And statues, school names and contemporary “praise” - anywhere - can’t be disconnected from present reality.

Nor can his Scottish origins be disconnected from the generations of Scots who were given or bought cheap land taken from Indigenous nations. The land was depicted as empty, wild, unclaimed. And Indigenous peoples were portrayed as in the past, gone and mere imagery to be used. It’s why teepees, headdresses, dreamcatchers and other aspects of culture are so common in UK marketing, shops and festivals.

A Scottish exceptionalism of “look what Glaswegians achieved” is not disconnected from the present.

Glasgow needs to learn, today, what Macdonald did and make its own efforts to undo the legacy. He might be 130 years dead, but we still must fight his racism.