Let’s learn from con­tro­ver­sial his­tor­i­cal fig­ures

But don’t for­get their achieve­ments ei­ther, writes Pre­mier Brad Wall.

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - OPINION -

For what they are worth, I of­fer words of cau­tion to the group of On­tario teach­ers and per­haps oth­ers who ap­par­ently wish to re­move Sir John A. Macdon­ald’s name from schools.

John A. Macdon­ald used the word ‘sav­ages’ to de­scribe Abo­rig­i­nal peoples. What is so un­ac­cept­able as to be ob­scene today was trag­i­cally the stuff of daily par­lance then.

It is a ter­ri­ble but un­de­ni­able fea­ture of our his­tory that dims any light that shines on the mem­ory of our first prime min­is­ter. One could say the same about some of his poli­cies, and those of his suc­ces­sors, es­pe­cially as it con­cerns Canada’s First Na­tions.

Yet, he was also the prime min­is­ter who es­tab­lished the North West Mounted Po­lice (today the RCMP) that led to its first fort in south­west Saskatchewan, in par­tial re­sponse to the Cy­press Hills Mas­sacre of Abo­rig­i­nal peoples by whisky traders. He built the Cana­dian Pa­cific Rail­way, against all odds and some pro­pri­ety, bind­ing the coun­try to­gether and ward­ing off the Amer­i­can ex­pan­sion­ist de­sires of man­i­fest destiny. He is a Fa­ther of Con­fed­er­a­tion.

This is a slip­pery slope, and one that threat­ens the preser­va­tion of all our his­tory, that which com­mends as well as that which shames.

Where does all of this lead? Macdon­ald’s words and some of his ac­tions are rep­re­hen­si­ble, even though con­ven­tional to the pe­riod.

What about Abra­ham Lincoln? In his fourth de­bate with Stephen Dou­glas in 1858 he said, “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favour of bring­ing about in any way the so­cial and po­lit­i­cal equal­ity of the black and white races — that I am not nor ever have been in favour of mak­ing vot­ers or ju­rors of ne­groes, nor of qual­i­fy­ing them to hold of­fice, nor to in­ter­marry with white peo­ple ...”

Five years later, he would sign the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion.

And what about Saskatchewan’s own sev­enth pre­mier Tommy Dou­glas, for whom a school is rightly named in Saska­toon along with an of­fice build­ing on Al­bert Street in Regina, and a pro­vin­cial park? No doubt that school is at­tended by a di­verse group of stu­dents, some per­haps with in­tel­lec­tual dis­abil­i­ties.

Here is what he said and be­lieved about the in­tel­lec­tu­ally dis­abled in his master’s de­gree the­sis, The Prob­lems of the Sub­nor­mal Fam­ily: “Thus ster­il­iza­tion would de­prive them of noth­ing that they value very highly, and would make it im­pos­si­ble for them to re­pro­duce those whose pres­ence could con­trib­ute little to the gen­eral well-be­ing of so­ci­ety.”

Is it not a short walk be­tween the calls to re­move the name of our first prime min­is­ter from schools, to the clos­ing of the Lincoln Me­mo­rial in Wash­ing­ton D.C., or the re­moval of Tommy Dou­glas’s name from a Saska­toon school?

Rather, let us use these name­sakes for the op­por­tu­nity to teach our his­tory, to re­mem­ber the achieve­ments of those who have gone be­fore.

And yes, let us also re­solve to never for­get their mis­takes, their mis­guided and dan­ger­ous be­liefs to which many, if not the ma­jor­ity, once clung.

From the ideas and words and ac­tions we know to be rep­re­hen­si­ble today, we can also learn ... and vow to leave them be­hind.

From the ideas and words and ac­tions we know to be rep­re­hen­si­ble today, we can also learn ... and vow to leave them be­hind.


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