Stop hating Sir John A. Macdonald (and other history lessons)
 

Stop hating Sir John A. (and other history lessons)

Canada is suffering from a rampant myopic urge to erase the entirety of its history. Why it’s time to stop the attacks on our past.


 
The statue of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald by artist Ruth Abernethy at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo Jun 30, 2015. (Annie Sakkab/Record Staff)

The statue of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald by artist Ruth Abernethy at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo Jun 30, 2015. (Annie Sakkab/Record Staff)

Sir John A. Macdonald is no longer homeless. And soon he won’t be lonely either.

A life-sized statue of Canada’s first prime minister that bounced around southwestern Ontario like an unloved hobo before finding a home in a little-known national historic site is about to get some company. As part of this year’s Canada Day 150 celebrations, two new bronze prime ministers will be added to a burgeoning statue park celebrating Canada’s political leaders in Baden, Ont.; another will follow on Remembrance Day.

The statue announcement offers a welcome opportunity to celebrate the stories of Canada’s political leaders. And a chance to push back against relentless demands that we turn our backs on our own history whenever it conflicts with delicate 21st century sensibilities.

The tale of how Sir John A. came to Baden is a depressing reminder of the hostility often directed at Canadian history. In 2013 a local group of benefactors offered to install statues commemorating all 22 of Canada’s past prime ministers in a large urban park in downtown Kitchener. While this unique tourist attraction was to be provided free to taxpayers, nearby residents were aghast at sharing their beloved green space with, as one complainant put it, the “corrupt white dead men” who’ve served as prime minister.

After a considerable public outcry, Kitchener promptly withdrew its support. When it came time to unveil the first, now-homeless statue of Macdonald, the only available locale was a hockey rink. He later spent time in a doorway on Kitchener’s main drag. Such neglect seems a shame since the statue, by sculptor Ruth Abernethy, is a clever and engaging piece of art; titled “A Canadian Conversation,” Sir John A stands at ground level offering viewers a seat at one of two empty chairs, signifying his role bringing English and French Canada together via Confederation.

The following year Wilfrid Laurier University in neighbouring Waterloo offered to host the statues, and the itinerate Sir John A. was promptly installed on campus. Almost as quickly came another backlash. Macdonald’s presence was “a visual embodiment of colonialism and an affront to Indigenous students,” claimed a petition popular with students and faculty. University administration commissioned a report that declared the statue plan an impediment to the school’s goals of “inclusivity and diversity.” Canada’s founding leader got the boot once more.

It wasn’t until last year that Macdonald finally found a permanent home in the bucolic community of Baden (population 5,000) on the grounds of Castle Kilbride, an elegant 19th century Italianate villa and national historic site. This week, what is now called the Prime Ministers Statue and Educational Resource Project, announced the imminent arrival of the three further statues. Their identities will be revealed the month prior to Canada Day, but project co-ordinator Jim Rodger hints they’ll be among the legends of Canadian politics. (In other words, don’t hold your breath for a Kim Campbell or Sir John Abbott.)

Rodger, a retired local high school principal, says the long and often difficult journey to Baden was “a surprise and a disappointment” for the group and its funders. “We certainly didn’t expect such push-back against the idea.” He points out each $90,000 statue will come with a sizeable educational component meant to foster debate and fill in the historical record. “It has never been our intention to put these figures up on pedestals, either stylistically or symbolically,” he adds. “No one is saying they were saints, we want people to talk about them, their accomplishments and deficiencies, and the context of their time.”

Such an effort at historical accuracy and contextual understanding seems a welcome counterpoint to the rampant myopic urge to erase the entirety of Canada’s history. Demands that historical figures be judged by the standards of the present – as evidenced by the repeated animosity shown the statue plan − threaten to denude our country of its entire past.

Canada has certainly committed its share of mistakes over its 150 years. But where we’ve erred, we’ve apologized. And the trajectory has been unquestionably upwards. Canadian history should be considered a process, and the result today is a country that stands as a model for the rest of the world in terms of tolerance and diversity.

Simply declaring all historical figures unfit for 21st century consumption ignores the crucial role they all played in that chain of events that yielded modern Canada. Rather than holding them to the impossible (and ever-changing) standards of today, the only fair way to consider the historical contribution of our past leaders is to weigh their most significant accomplishments in the context of their own times. “I don’t think you could ever find someone from the past who will measure up to today’s standards,” says Rodger, speaking from experience.

It’s something to keep in mind given the latest urge to rid ourselves of our past: renaming the famous Langevin Block in Ottawa.

A sturdy sandstone edifice across the street from the Parliament Building and home to the Prime Minister’s Office, the 128-year old landmark is named for Sir Hector-Louis Langevin, a long-time Quebec member of Macdonald’s cabinets and a central figure in Confederation. He was also the creator of Canada’s now-reviled residential school system.

Last month Indigenous leaders, including several MPs as well as Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde demanded the Trudeau government remove Langevin’s name from the building. “One … [of] the key architects of the devastating Indian residential school system include prominent leaders of the past such as Hector Langevin,” Bellegarde said in a letter to Public Services Minister Judy Foote, making the case for Langevin’s removal.

As for incriminating evidence, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report gives prominence to Langevin’s role in the attempted assimilation of native culture. “If you wish to educate the [native] children, you must separate them from their parents,” he told the House of Commons in 1883. “If you leave them in the family they may know how to read and write but they still remain savages.” Is this sufficient to strike Langevin from Ottawa’s sandstone pantheon?

While Langevin attracts the ire of Indigenous leaders for his creation of the residential school system, it’s wrong to consider this his principal legacy. Langevin was honoured with his name on a building because he was a key member of Macdonald’s government and an accomplished minister of public works during Canada’s early years. The authoritative entry on Langevin in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography dwells at length on his role as a federalist figure in fractious pre- and post-Confederation Quebec. It never once mentions residential schools.

As for context, Langevin’s views on assimilation and ‘savages’ may grate on today’s ears, but his belief in the superiority of white culture simply reflects the wisdom of the day. If he stood out, it was for being overly generous towards the native community. In response to Langevin’s residential school plan, federal Liberal leader Edward Blake, for example, argued the planned federal expenditure of $150 per child was “extraordinarily large,” and proposed instead that the “squaws … [and] bucks” be housed in “the simplest manner.”

Langevin also planned to give every native residential school graduate a free homestead. This was not a plan created out of open hostility towards natives; the goal, however misconstrued or poorly implemented, was to improve their lives. Surely intent matters.

Like the rest of Canada’s leaders, Langevin was no saint. He was implicated in the Pacific Scandal and suffered several other political humiliations. But he was an important voice for federalism in Canada’s early life. He offered many years of service to this country. And, for his time, he demonstrated an enlightened regard for native living standards. As such, he deserves his place in Ottawa, just as our prime ministers, flawed as they may be, have earned their spot in Baden.

History is the record of what happened. It’s not what we wish should have happened.


 

Stop hating Sir John A. (and other history lessons)

  1. Of course we should remember our history…..it’s a measuring stick to show how far we’ve come.

    I think the fear is that we’ll get SO caught up in the past that we don’t move forward…..and we definitely need to do that.

  2. “a large urban park in downtown Kitchener” I hate to admit it but the Donald is right … just more fake news: Victoria Commons a small adjunct to Victoria is not all that large and is already heavily utilized. Large would be 20+ acres – the Commons is not even close and the area is already occupied with an outdoor rink in winter, a playing field in summer and large marquee tents for festival events. An intrepid reporter might actually go to see how the area around the ring path is used for a major event like the blues festival … or not and just fake it.
    As for denying that modern sensibilities are wrong and pretty much returning to an era of colonial repression is wrong headed.
    “Sir John A stands at ground level offering viewers a seat at one of two empty chairs, signifying his role bringing English and French Canada together via Confederation.” really – more fake news. Sir John was a chronic drunkard who attempted to start a fist fight in the House and his goal via confederation was to cut off Quebec’s influence over the affairs of Canada, the colony not the country; English and French Canada, Canada East and Canada West were already together within Canada. This statement is pure invention.
    “If you leave them in the family they may know how to read and write but they still remain savages.” Is this sufficient to strike Langevin from Ottawa’s sandstone pantheon? It depends whether or not one can laud such racist sentiment or whether, like the author, one can find an excuse to overlook it; after all he didn’t kill anyone … or did he – read real history!

    • Sir John A Macdonald’s first wife died after a long illness. His young son died too.

      The second time he married ,a girl was born who had hydrocephalus and never walked,

      Sir John had good reason to drink

      In spite of it all he built a country

      • Thanks for pointing that out, Emily. People often see historical figures only in relation to their public life and forget that they have other pressures in their lives. The history books rarely show the whole person.

    • “[McDonald’s] goal via confederation was to cut off Quebec’s influence over the affairs of Canada, the colony not the country.” This is completely incorrect. McDonald and the Conservative party in Canada West pre-Confederation got along well with the French, and were coalition partners with the Parti Bleu of Canada East led by Cartier. The one who wanted to cut off Quebec’s influence over the affairs of Canada was George Brown, the leader of the Clear Grit Liberals, who was a notorious anti-French bigot.

      Your understanding of Langevin in the context of his time is just as bad.

  3. Talk about a victory by some sort of political correctness over common sense — this story is an epitome of what is wrong in Canada. We have a lot of ghosts which need to be exorcised. But to say these never existed is to whitewash Canada beyond recognition.
    We are not going to solve our problems by saying those problems — and the people who caused them — never existed. That is the height of foolishness.

  4. Seems it is largely only the Aboriginals who want to hate on anything from the past but especially anything to do with Sir John A. or White and the wonderful and not so wonderful history of our country (which they are part of too) and want to rewrite it to suit themselves!! We must know our history, but not “live” in the past as some do, and ALL our coming generations must know as it is a part of us while moving ahead positively to create a better, more productive unified country!!!

  5. “The authoritative entry on Langevin in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography dwells at length on his role as a federalist figure in fractious pre- and post-Confederation Quebec. It never once mentions residential schools.”

    It’s not all that authoritative its it completely leaves out his major role in a policy that has deeply scared indigenous people and affects the whole country to this very day.

    • Exactly the point I was going to make. As we know, history is usually written by the victors. The majority of the history of our aboriginal peoples appears nowhere in the commonly-accepted history books of Canada including the textbooks used to teach our children what is represented as Canadian history.

  6. It’s well past time we stopped glorifying the architects of cultural genocide

  7. I am a white male, meaning of course that I do not suffer from the hands of prejudice as many other members of society do. I can understand that the afflicted endure pain at the very thought of a public memorial dedicated to figures with questionable morals of the past. Canada today would not be without the actions of such individuals.
    Germans include education of the Holocaust as part of their schooling. By no means is it to commend the actions of the past, but rather to bear them. For without the reminder of what is past how can we evolve, or gauge our growth in societal equality? Erasing the past is improbable and impossible, and should be bore and taught to further our advancement towards a better tomorrow.

  8. Is this article a joke?