First published at Global News on August 25, 2017.
First, they came for the Confederate statues. Then they came for Sir John A. Macdonald. What’s next?
As a movement to purge America’s south of its monuments to Confederate leaders continues, Canada’s largest province is seeing a push from its elementary teachers’ union to wipe the country’s first prime minister from school names.
The motion, passed last week at the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario’s annual meeting, calls on Ontario school boards to “examine and rename schools and buildings named after Sir John A. Macdonald, in recognition of his central role as the architect of genocide against Indigenous Peoples, the impact that this has on the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, parents, and educators, and the ways in which his namesake buildings can contribute to an unsafe space to learn and to work.”
The ETFO isn’t the first group to launch a smear campaign against Macdonald. Just last year, a statue of the Scottish-born leader was removed from Wilfrid Laurier University, after a project to display statues of every Canadian prime minister was aborted, and later relocated to an off-campus location. The successful petition to cancel the installation charged that housing bronze casts of Macdonald and his successors on historically aboriginal land was “politically and culturally insensitive (if not offensive).”
There’s no public push for this latest ETFO motion, so I can only assume that teachers are virtue signalling in response to discussions emerging from the United States. I expect better of those tasked with educating the next generation, and I’d hope Canadians do as well.
If we are to take a critical lens to notable Canadians, why stop at Macdonald?
Ontario and Saskatchewan have schools named after Tommy Douglas, CBC’s “greatest Canadian” for his foundation of Canada’s universal health-care system. But Douglas was also a champion of eugenics, arguing in his university thesis that forced sterilization was the answer for those “anywhere from high-grade moron to mentally defective.”
As the New Democratic Party’s leader, he characterized homosexuality as a “mental illness” and “psychiatric condition.”
Former British Expeditionary Force commander Earl Haig has schools in his honour across Canada, though his wartime leadership earned him the moniker of “Butcher Haig.” According to the Canadian War Museum, Haig’s “epic but costly offensives… have become nearly synonymous with the carnage and futility of First World War Battles.”
Sir Wilfrid Laurier is rightfully heralded as one of Canada’s greatest leaders, but his premiership was not without challenges. Laurier hiked a head tax on Chinese immigrants from $50 to $500 — at the time, the price of two houses — to discourage them from coming to Canada.
No historic figure, however great, can emerge unscathed from scrutiny by today’s standards of justice and decency.
Studying and understanding history involves looking at it through the lenses of the past and present. This means assessing figures by the gestalt of their lives, rather than specific chapters.
When we do this with Macdonald, he emerges as an overall positive force in creating the Canada that we inhabit today.
He united the country’s founding provinces, connected the nation for trade and travel with the Trans-Canadian railroad, and forged a relationship with the United States, which has withstood the test of time.
Macdonald expended political capital to keep the Canadian federation together when facing opposition. Had a different leader been in his seat, the Canada we know may not exist.
His legacy has persisted over the last 150 years in a way that no modern politician’s will.
And it’s worth noting that Macdonald seems to have been fairly progressive in his own era. He attempted in 1885 — albeit unsuccessfully — to extend voting rights to women, calling for “completely establishing (a woman’s) equality as a human being.”
On his “complex” relationship with aboriginals, historian Don Smith wrote, “If judged by the standards of his age, not ours, he emerges as a complex and relatively tolerant individual.”
Macdonald’s legacy isn’t above criticism, but it’s a shameful act of historic revisionism to allow the negatives to outshine the positives. I fear seeing how the teachers who voted for the motion would actually teach Canada’s history in the classroom.
As a country, we must strive take the best achievements of each generation into the next, and leave the worst behind. That’s called progress, and we’ve made a lot of it, despite the charges of those on society’s radical fringe.
Rather than tarring Sir John A. Macdonald’s name, let’s use his namesake schools — and all schools — to teach the good, the bad, and the ugly of Canada’s history, to continue our nation’s growth.
To say Macdonald — or any of his contemporaries, for that matter — was solely sunshine and roses would be a gross mischaracterization. But to say he was all bad would be worse.