National Post (National Edition)
SIR JOHN A
NOTABLE CANADIAN THINKERS ON WHAT MACDONALD MEANS TO THEM. NEW SERIES BEGINS,
Sir John A. Macdonald played a critically important role in founding Canada and in leading it as prime minister for almost 20 years. Over the past few years, however, he has fallen out of fashion. His legacy has come under sudden and severe revisionism as new interpretations of his role have emerged, and monuments in his honour have been defaced across the country.
Has the new wave gone too far? In recognition of his 206th birthday on Jan. 11, the National Post will revisit the Macdonald record with pieces by notable Canadian thinkers, in a series curated by author/academic Patrice Dutil, who has written extensively on Macdonald.
Last month, the principal of the Sir John A. Macdonald High School in Upper Tantallon in Nova Scotia announced, seemingly without any discussion, that her school had to be renamed. Somehow, Canada's first prime minister has gone from a national hero to being despised by a small but growing number of critics and, perhaps most frighteningly, shunned by people who don't know what to make of all the slander now swirling about his legacy.
It is, of course, proper that every generation reflect upon its nation's history, allowing its members to pass judgment on what they continue to approve and disapprove. But with Macdonald, this healthy process is being circumvented so as to lead immediately to condemnation. No debate necessary. This is unfair and dangerous to our national story.
I have been involved for over 15 years with the remembrance of our country's First World War efforts, and I know firsthand how fragile the Canadian connection to the past has become. When we lost the last of those who personally experienced the First World War, we lost a tangible connection to the past which cannot be replaced. We who follow can only do our best to explain Canada's involvement in the Great War, and this can only be done by contextualizing the actions of our ancestors. While we can debate whether what our forefathers did was right or wrong, and there was a lot of both in 1914-18, we cannot erase them from our history simply based on 21st century sentiments.
The issue of John A. Macdonald raises similar issues. For much of our history, John A. Macdonald was widely perceived as the driving force of Confederation, the man whose vision created a country that included the north and west, and who built a transcontinental railroad and devised a national economic model to bind it all together. For over a century, his name had been placed on public spaces and buildings, and statues to commemorate him have appeared across the country.
Suddenly, we are told by self-appointed “experts” that any acknowledgment of Macdonald's accomplishments should be removed from the public eye because of his involvement in the creation of residential schools. The fact that Indigenous peoples in the West stipulated that education be provided in their treaties is ignored, as is the fact that Macdonald insisted that residential school attendance be voluntary — and open to girls and boys. They were only made mandatory long after his death. We don't hear much about these facts these days.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion and there is certainly more than enough in John A. Macdonald's record to show that he was far from perfect on Indigenous matters, but there is also ample evidence that shows that he was acutely aware of his and his government's responsibilities toward Indigenous people, and that both he and his governments did their best to meet these responsibilities. (Is the federal government doing much better on that file today, with a far larger bureaucracy and much more money?)
It is certainly ironic that Macdonald, who was roundly criticized by contemporaries for being too “progressive” on Indigenous issues, is now vilified for his lack of compassion.
There is clearly much room for debate here, but a debate requires two or more sides. For some, such as in the case of Upper Tantallon or more shamefully (as they should have known better) the Faculty of Law at Queen's University, there will be no debate.
At Queen's, Macdonald has been found guilty of making some students and faculty “uncomfortable.” Accordingly, his name has been stripped from the building of the very school that he helped finance in his hometown.
Macdonald's statues have been taken down by municipal councils (Victoria), vandalized (Toronto, Picton, Hamilton, Castle Kildare) and toppled by a mob in Montreal.
A country with little knowledge of its own history is being told by a loud but small minority that Macdonald is disposable and that Canadians should not even use his record and legacy as a learning experience.
Canadians must take up the task of educating themselves on Macdonald (and others from our past). Governments should live up to their educational mandates and ensure that every public display of his name include education panels with QR codes. Easily captured by smartphones, they would lead to material that will outline the Macdonald record, warts and all.
Why not allow Canadians to form their own opinions on his legacy? That way, we can measure our progress as a nation against the best and most useful benchmarks of the past.
WHY NOT ALLOW CANADIANS TO FORM THEIR OWN OPINIONS ON HIS LEGACY?