Can any past prime min­is­ters pass muster to­day?

Truro Daily News - - OPINION - Thomas Walkom Thomas Walkom is a writer with the Toronto Star.

The con­tro­versy over his­tory has fi­nally tar­geted John A. Mac­don­ald. It was only a mat­ter of time.

The only ques­tion now is which prime min­is­ter will be next.

Per­haps it was ap­pro­pri­ate teach­ers pulled the trig­ger on Mac­don­ald. The Ele­men­tary Teach­ers Fed­er­a­tion of On­tario, a union, went public last week with its call to strip the name of Canada’s first prime min­is­ter from any schools us­ing it.

There are at least three public schools in the Greater Toronto area named after Mac­don­ald and at least nine in On­tario as a whole.

He’s gen­er­ally cred­ited with be­ing the key force be­hind the 1867 Con­fed­er­a­tion deal that cre­ated mod­ern Canada.

But Mac­don­ald was also very much a crea­ture of his times. That meant, among other things, that he did not pos­sess what to­day’s world would call en­light­ened views on the place of Indige­nous peo­ple in Canada.

To Vic­to­ri­ans like Mac­don­ald, na­tive North Amer­i­cans were trou­ble­some rem­nants of a peo­ple whose time had come and gone.

They were also viewed as a real mil­i­tary threat. The Bat­tle of the Lit­tle Bighorn, in which war­riors in­spired by Lakota leader Sit­ting Bull de­feated U.S. forces led by George Custer, oc­curred when the new Canada was only nine years old.

A few years later, in 1885, Mac­don­ald sent Cana­dian troops to put down the Indige­nous up­ris­ing in Saskatchewan known as the sec­ond Riel re­bel­lion.

So per­haps it is not sur­pris­ing that when it came to Indige­nous peo­ple, his main con­cern was to pacify and as­sim­i­late them through in­sti­tu­tions, such as res­i­den­tial schools.

Not nice per­haps, but not sur­pris­ing.

Should such a man be hon­oured by hav­ing his name at­tached to public schools? Perry Bel­le­garde, na­tional chief of the Assem­bly of First Na­tions says no. Bel­le­garde may be right.

The prob­lem is that Mac­don­ald is not the only his­tor­i­cal leader whose be­hav­iour would fail to pass muster to­day. Wil­frid Lau­rier, the Lib­eral prime min­is­ter whose gov­ern­ment fa­mously urged East­ern Euro­pean “men in sheep­skin coats” to set­tle the West, was in the broad­est sense pro-im­mi­gra­tion. But he also did his best to keep the Chi­nese out of Canada.

Wil­liam Lyon Macken­zie King, the long-serv­ing prime min­is­ter who steered Canada through the Sec­ond World War was, in the mid-1930s, a se­cret fan of Adolph Hitler’s labour re­la­tions poli­cies.

Un­der King, Canada was ex­tremely re­luc­tant to take in Jewish refugees flee­ing Hitler.

J.S. Woodsworth, the first leader of what is now the New Demo­cratic Party, was a fierce ad­vo­cate of work­ers’ rights. But his 1909 book on im­mi­gra­tion, “Strangers Within our Gates,” uses race-based lan­guage that would get him ex­pelled from to­day’s NDP.

Robert Bor­den is gen­er­ally re­garded as a na­tion-builder who steered Canada through the First World War and into in­ter­na­tional promi­nence. But he can also be seen as a na­tion-buster, whose de­ci­sion to in­tro­duce con­scrip­tion fanned an­i­mos­ity be­tween English and French Canada.

Even mod­ern politi­cians are com­pli­cated. Pierre Trudeau was at one level a civil lib­er­tar­ian whose ef­forts led to Canada’s con­sti­tu­tion­ally en­trenched char­ter of rights and free­doms.

Yet he was also the man who, dur­ing the FLQ cri­sis of 1970, ca­su­ally sus­pended civil rights, a move that led to the ar­rest with­out charge of al­most 500 in­no­cent peo­ple.

So who de­serves to be hon­oured? Fa­ther of Con­fed­er­a­tion Hec­tor-Louis Langevin ap­par­ently doesn’t. His name was re­moved from a prom­i­nent fed­eral build­ing ear­lier this year be­cause, dur­ing one of Mac­don­ald’s ad­min­is­tra­tions, he had been put in charge of the res­i­den­tial school file.

Nei­ther, it seems, does Clara Brett Martin. In 1989, an On­tario gov­ern­ment build­ing was named after Martin, the first woman ad­mit­ted to the bar in the Bri­tish Em­pire.

But a year later, her name was re­moved from the build­ing. Some­one had found a 1915 let­ter she wrote in which she made an­tiSemitic slurs.

For now Mac­don­ald is safe. On­tario Premier Kath­leen Wynne has pledged not to strip his name from any schools. But I’d be sur­prised if any new gov­ern­ment build­ings were named after the first prime min­is­ter.

In fact, it might be less con­tro­ver­sial to avoid nam­ing any­thing after any­body. At least un­til we can find some­one who will re­main flaw­less for all time.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.