Grap­pling with the legacy of Sir John A.

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - EDITORIAL -

It felt ironic when the mayor of Vic­to­ria said this week that a lo­cal statue of John A. Mac­don­ald served as a “painful re­minder” of colo­nial­ism – coming as it did from the civic leader of a place proudly named af­ter a monarch who painted the world map red. The emo­tional im­pact of the bronze like­ness on some of the peo­ple who reg­u­larly passed by it is no doubt real. On the sub­ject of Indige­nous peo­ple, Mac­don­ald’s views and ac­tions were big­oted by any mod­ern stan­dard. But the mayor’s re­mark sug­gested the sort of se­lec­tive reck­on­ing with Canada’s past that of­ten mars th­ese in­creas­ingly fre­quent de­bates about how and whether to hon­our com­pli­cated his­tor­i­cal fig­ures. As Bri­tish Columbia’s cap­i­tal pre­pares to re­move the homage to Sir John A. from the steps of its City Hall this week­end, it’s worth think­ing about what th­ese ges­tures ac­com­plish, and why they are some­times as mis­guided as they are wellinten­tioned. Mac­don­ald’s treat­ment of Indige­nous peo­ple gave us the Canada we now call home. Eras­ing his mem­ory from the pub­lic sphere risks cre­at­ing a false dis­tance be­tween him and the Cana­dian present, an easy salve for our na­tional con­science that keeps us from coming to grips with trou­bling facts about the na­ture of our coun­try. Those re­think­ing the pub­lic ven­er­a­tion of Mac­don­ald and oth­ers like him should not be dis­missed or de­mo­nized as his­tor­i­cal van­dals. It is un­der­stand­able that Indige­nous na­tions such as the Songhees and Esquimalt should want him out of their sight. As is well known by know, Mac­don­ald called Indige­nous peo­ple “sav­ages” on the floor of the House of Com­mons and ad­vo­cated re­mov­ing their chil­dren to in­dus­trial schools. This was an un­con­tro­ver­sial view at the time – a les­son am­ply learned dur­ing re­cent cam­paigns to re­name build­ings and in­sti­tu­tions named af­ter Hec­tor-Louis Langevin (suc­cess­ful) and Eger­ton Ry­er­son (abortive) for their role in es­tab­lish­ing the res­i­den­tial-school sys­tem – but that does not make it less ugly in ret­ro­spect. Worse, and more for­ma­tive to the na­tion we have be­come, was Mac­don­ald’s “In­dian” pol­icy in the Prairies dur­ing the 1880s, when he or­dered the re­moval of Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties from the pro­posed route of the Cana­dian Pa­cific Rail­way and had food re­lief with­held “un­til the In­di­ans are on the verge of star­va­tion.” Through Mac­don­ald’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to build a transcon­ti­nen­tal rail­way and will­ing­ness to brush aside the Plains na­tions that stood in his way, Bri­tish Columbia was brought into Con­fed­er­a­tion, and the Prairies were made ac­ces­si­ble to mass Euro­pean set­tle­ment. Had he be­haved in greater iso­la­tion, the vi­o­lence and in­flu­ence of his meth­ods might be taken as good grounds for ban­ish­ing him. But do­ing so, con­sid­er­ing the con­text of his time, risks the com­fort­ing delu­sion that he was more of an out­lier than he was. From the era of Sa­muel de Cham­plain, the Euro­pean set­tle­ment of Canada en­tailed vi­o­lence against Indige­nous peo­ple and their way of life on a large scale, from the seiz­ing of land and the spread of dis­ease to out­right war­fare and ju­di­cial mur­der. That was un­der­stood im­plic­itly by most con­tem­po­rary set­tlers when it wasn’t be­ing ex­plic­itly en­dorsed. It was baked into the Cana­dian project. Re­mov­ing em­blems of Cana­dian iden­tity for their ties to colo­nial bru­tal­ity, then, is a slope that gets slip­pery fast, even be­fore it reaches the name Vic­to­ria. This is not akin to Amer­i­cans de­bat­ing Con­fed­er­ate stat­ues, which are mon­u­ments to men who wanted to de­stroy the United States and per­vert its found­ing ideals. John A. Mac­don­ald per­fectly em­bod­ied the found­ing ethos of our coun­try. Most of us are still in­debted to that ethos. We may have re­nounced Sir John A.’s racist at­ti­tudes, but we have not re­nounced the fruits of them, which we know as Western Canada. In that sense, both the de­fend­ers and as­sailants of his record have it right. Our first prime min­is­ter wove the coun­try to­gether and he cru­elly stamped out Indige­nous cul­tures. He ac­com­plished the for­mer, in part, by re­course to the lat­ter. That’s why Vic­to­ria’s de­ci­sion con­tains an un­der­min­ing hypocrisy. Even if we re­moved every totem of our na­tional fa­ther from Vic­to­ria to Bon­av­ista, and scrubbed his name from every school and high­way, Canada would still re­main as his mon­u­ment.

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