In Canada, a debate over monuments to a founder who was also a racist
and whose policies included a forced schooling program for more than 100,000 children that a national commission recently declared “cultural genocide.”
Now Kingston, the place where he is most honored, has become ground zero in a debate over how — or if — to commemorate his legacy.
Like the current dispute in the United States over Civil War monuments, the subject is an emotionally charged one in Canada, but it has been limited to arguments and acts of vandalism, without any violent clashes.
A union of elementary schoolteachers in Ontario passed a resolution this month calling on school boards to strip Macdonald’s name from the nine schools in the province, Canada’s most populous, that bear it, a move that outraged many Canadians and drew sharp criticism from some politicians.
John Baird, a minister in the previous Conservative government, told the Canadian Broadcasting that scrubbing Macdonald’s name from schools was “crazy and ridiculous,” an example of “trying to erase Canadian history in the guise of an extreme and radical political correctness.”
But Perry Bellegarde, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Canada’s largest indigenous organization, said that removing Macdonald’s name from schools could be part of the program promised by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to reconcile with Canada’s indigenous people for wrongs like forced schooling.
The country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission spent about six years gathering testimony from surviv- ing students of the indigenous boarding schools, and Trudeau has committed to fulfilling most of the 96 recommendations for reconciling with indigenous people proposed by the commission.
Over a period of roughly 100 years, about 150,000 indigenous children were taken from their families, sometimes by the police, and sent to the residential schools that were administered by churches.
The commission found that many of those children were sexually and physically abused at the schools and some died. The teachers and staff at many schools were incompetent or worse, the commission found, adding that “child neglect was institutionalized.”
Macdonald said that an indigenous child educated where he or she lives “is simply a savage who can read and write,” whereas children sent to boarding schools “will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.” To assimilate students, the schools banned indigenous languages and prohibited, sometimes forcefully, indigenous cultural practices.
Macdonald also cleared the path for a transcontinental railway in the 1880s in some areas by withholding food relief for indigenous people during a famine until they moved to governmentestablished reserves. The residents of several reserves were confined to them unless they could obtain a pass from a government agent to travel.
In Kingston’s leafy City Park, which includes a cricket ground, a statue of Macdonald, who led Canada from 1867 to 1873 and then again from 1878 until his death in 1891, has become a center of celebrations and protests.
Fourteen years ago, Arthur Milnes, a local author and self-described “public historian,” gathered eight people at the statue on Jan. 11, Macdonald’s generally accepted birthday. They sang O Canada and God Save the Queen and offered a toast to the former prime minister, whose love of drinking is part of his lore.
In subsequent years, the crowd grew into the hundreds, choirs performed, and Milnes received money from the previous Conservative government for a variety of Macdonald-related commemorations.
This January, there was no toast, a step Milnes said he took in the interest of public safety.
Felipe Pareja, the teacher from suburban Toronto who introduced the motion to remove Macdonald’s name from schools, said the timing, in connection with the recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, was just a coincidence. The push to get rid of the Macdonald name, he said, came out of recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, the inquiry that condemned Macdonald’s school polices.
“These residential schools were created for the purpose of separating aboriginal children from their families, in order to minimize and weaken family ties and cultural linkages, and to indoctrinate children into a new culture — the culture of the legally dominant Euro-Christian Canadian society, led by Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald,” the commission reported.
Kathleen Wynne, the premier of Ontario, said in a statement that the call to remove Macdonald’s name “missed the mark,” and she urged the local school boards responsible for the decision not to take the step.