In­stead of re­nam­ing build­ings, let’s im­prove lives We’re dwelling on the past in­stead of rec­og­niz­ing what we can do to im­prove the fu­ture

The Hamilton Spectator - - COM­MENT - PAUL AX­EL­ROD Paul Ax­el­rod is a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus, ed­u­ca­tion and his­tory, York Uni­ver­sity. This ar­ti­cle was orig­i­nally pub­lished on The Con­ver­sa­tion (the­con­ver­sa­

I grew up on Mait­land Street in Lon­don, Ont., named for Pere­grine Mait­land, lieu­tenant-gov­er­nor of Up­per Canada in the 1820s — a res­o­lutely con­ser­va­tive leader who op­posed demo­cratic re­form.

My grand­mother had a house on Sim­coe Street, named af­ter the first lieu­tenant-gov­er­nor of Up­per Canada, who cre­ated the clergy re­serves, sub­stan­tial tracts of land as­signed ex­clu­sively to the Church of Eng­land.

Th­ese and other of­fi­cials owed their al­le­giance and po­si­tions to the Bri­tish Crown, which did not abol­ish the slave trade in Bri­tish North Amer­ica un­til 1834.

An ar­gu­ment could be made that all streets, in­sti­tu­tions or mon­u­ments rec­og­niz­ing such of­fi­cials should be re­named be­cause what­ever else they con­trib­uted to the devel­op­ment of Canada, they were pro­po­nents of elitism, im­pe­ri­al­ism, racism, mil­i­tarism and sex­ism.

Even so­cial jus­tice icons such as J.S. Woodsworth, the first leader of the Co-op­er­a­tive Com­mon­wealth Fed­er­a­tion (CCF) — pre­de­ces­sor of the New Demo­cratic Party — wouldn’t es­cape such crit­i­cal scru­tiny. He was the au­thor of “Strangers Within Our Gates,” a 1909 book that de­meaned im­mi­grants as well as “the Ne­gro and the In­dian.”

Make no mis­take: The nam­ing of build­ings and memo­ri­als is an in­tensely po­lit­i­cal process, and there is noth­ing es­pe­cially sacred about it.

Such de­ci­sions arise from suc­cess­ful lob­by­ing by sup­port­ers, or in the case of re­mov­ing names from build­ings and memo­ri­als, suc­cess­ful lob­by­ing by op­po­nents of his­tor­i­cal in­di­vid­u­als, most of whom re­flected the times in which they lived.

As a long­time his­to­rian and au­thor of “The Prom­ise of School­ing: Ed­u­ca­tion in Canada, 1800-1914,” I con­tend that Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau’s re­nam­ing of the Langevin Block in Ot­tawa ear­lier this year has un­wit­tingly un­leashed a po­lit­i­cal move­ment that will be dif­fi­cult to rein in.

His­to­ri­ans have al­ready noted that Hec­tor-Louis Langevin was not per­son­ally re­spon­si­ble for cre­at­ing res­i­den­tial schools. So Trudeau has essen­tially in­vited a cam­paign against the per­son who was in fact re­spon­si­ble: Sir John A. Mac­don­ald, Canada’s first prime min­is­ter.

And the Ele­men­tary Teach­ers’ Fed­er­a­tion of On­tario has taken up this in­vi­ta­tion. They want all John A. Mac­don­ald schools in the prov­ince to be re­named.

That’s a ge­nie that’s go­ing to be some­what dif­fi­cult to re­turn to its bot­tle for the prime min­is­ter.

On the one hand, the po­lit­i­cal mo­ti­va­tion be­hind the cam­paign is ad­mirable and use­ful. It height­ens aware­ness and sus­tains pub­lic dis­cus­sion about Canada’s abom­inable his­tor­i­cal treat­ment of Indige­nous peo­ples.

On the other hand, it gen­er­ates enor­mous prac­ti­cal and mo­ral prob­lems.

Given the prej­u­dices and ques­tion­able ac­tions of his­tor­i­cal fig­ures who have been memo­ri­al­ized, lit­er­ally thou­sands of re­nam­ing ex­er­cises will be re­quired, a di­vi­sive process that could con­sume the en­er­gies and re­sources of com­mu­ni­ties ev­ery­where.

And un­less we choose to avoid names al­to­gether and sim­ply num­ber our schools and streets, there is no guar­an­tee, as we have seen, that the rep­u­ta­tions of those we do honour will en­dure un­tar­nished.

More im­por­tant than any of this is the fact that name-chang­ing alone im­proves no one’s life in Canada on any sig­nif­i­cant scale. It’s a sym­bolic ges­ture that can in­spire head­lines and rhetoric but ig­nores the real is­sues.

In that spirit, let’s pour our time and money into sup­ply­ing drink­able wa­ter to those liv­ing on First Na­tions land and de­cent, affordable hous­ing to those in cities.

Let’s se­ri­ously ad­dress Indige­nous poverty and un­em­ploy­ment, and im­prove First Na­tions’ ac­cess to post-se­condary ed­u­ca­tion.

Schools and uni­ver­si­ties should also deepen their stu­dents’ knowl­edge of Indige­nous so­ci­eties, be­yond the su­per­fi­cial and sym­bolic.

Let’s con­front in­equity in all of our in­sti­tu­tions and in­vest less time in the du­bi­ous and ex­haust­ing process of re­nam­ing them.


The John. A. Mac­don­ald statue at the south end of Queen’s Park. Paul Ax­el­rod writes: “Make no mis­take: The nam­ing of build­ings and memo­ri­als is an in­tensely po­lit­i­cal process, and there is noth­ing es­pe­cially sa­cred about it.”

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