Sir John A.
By Chad Ingram
Published Aug. 31, 2017
The Elemenatary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario ignited a wave of controversy last week with a recommendation that schools in Ontario named for Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, be renamed.
In its resolution, the union cited Macdonald as the architect of the residential school system and the father of Canada’s Indigenous genocide.
While whether or not to rename schools is actually a decision of each individual school board, the recommendation sparked a nationwide debate on the appropriateness of continuing to honour such a dubious figure.
Macdonald was a racist; of that there is no doubt. It’s a documented fact. He starved out Indigenous communities to make way for the railroad, took military action against the Métis and oversaw the creation of the residential school system. He is quoted in newspapers calling Indigenous people “savages,” and explaining why Indigenous children should be separated from their parents and taught to think and act like white people.
Of course, most 19th century, white, aristocratic men – and white people in general, for that matter – held racist views. They were taught and believed they were intellectually and morally superior to Indigenous people, and people of other ethnicities, for that matter. So, if you’re going to rename schools named for Macdonald, so too should you rename schools named for Wilfred Laurier, another prime minister who held derogatory views of the country’s Indigenous population.
Following that process to its logical conclusion gets complicated, since there are so many institutions and, indeed, whole communities in Ontario named for dead, aristocratic, white men of the 18th and 19th centuries. Durham, Simcoe, Haliburton ... the list goes on and on.
Many have suggested it is unfair to judge historic figures through the lens of 2017 values and that seems to make sense, to a point. The question becomes, what is that point? Is it unfair to judge the puritans behind the Salem witch trials of the 1690s by 2017 values? What about American slave owners? What about Stalin? Mussolini? Hitler? It is unfair to judge them through the lens of today?
Things get pretty complex pretty quickly.
We must also consider our own, intrinsically biased worldviews. It’s all fine and dandy for me, a white man whose European ancestors came to North America generations ago, to sit here and write that, while he had flaws, Macdonald was the first prime minister of the confederation of Canada and so therefore deserves to be respected.
Canada has been good to me. Canada was tailor-made for me.
However, if I’m a young Indigenous student attending a school named for a man who engineered a residential school system that caused generations of pain for my family, it is quite understandable that I might be angry about that.
There is an inherent risk in turning historical figures into national heroes. Macdonald was a man and like all men, flawed. But over time, he’s become more than a man. He’s become a symbol, a myth, a legend, the great “Father of Confederation,” a
larger-than-life figure to be revered.
And that’s a problem.
Perhaps the real lesson in this whole Macdonald situation is that we should just stop naming things after politicians, period.