Why John A. Macdonald's name doesn't belong on Canada's schools - Macleans.ca

Why John A. Macdonald’s name doesn’t belong on Canada’s schools

Let’s teach our children about Macdonald, not make them line up under his banner, writes Cherie Dimaline



Should public schools be allowed to bear the name of Canadians associated with terrible treatment of Indigenous people?

The Ontario Teachers Union thinks not. A few days ago, it passed a resolution urging school boards to remove the name of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, from public schools. It’s no coincidence that this comes just as Americans are hotly debating whether statues and monuments memorializing the Confederacy should be permanently removed.

READ MORE: Why Sir John A. Macdonald’s name should stay on our schools

Not surprisingly, opposition to the Ontario teachers was swift. Many people trotted out the “political correctness gone mad” argument, saying this amounts to the “whitewashing of history.”

As a Métis woman and mom, it strikes me as particularly ironic that they’re worried about history being lost. After all, the very fact that we send our children to schools named after the architect of Indigenous genocide through the residential schools attempts to remove our story, negate our well-being and ignore our continued survival. It is, in fact, a push to actively lose history.

Perhaps if the education system were truly inclusive, particularly of Indigenous history, people and issues, the voices asking for the man who condemned an entire culture to be removed from the places where our children learn would be louder, because they would include more Canadians in the chorus.

I hear all the time that colonization happened 400 years ago, that it’s so far gone that we shouldn’t be so sensitive. And maybe this is where education has a larger role to play—both in the classroom and in the home. John A. famously set out to ‘kill the Indian in the child.’ But the reality is that the last residential school closed only in 1996. We still live under the Indian Act. We are still affected by racism, both systemic and violent. Repercussions of Macdonald’s mandate continue to impact our rights, our languages, our education and the very survival of our women. Colonization didn’t happen 400 years ago; it began 400 years ago and continues today. Right now.

RELATED: The case for keeping ‘Langevin Block’

The environment we raise our children in shapes who they become. Think racism is dead?Think our kids know better and so they are largely unaffected by the way we gloss over Canada’s spotted past? Here’s a story from 2017.

My daughter has just graduated from a very well-respected Toronto arts high school that was recently called out for being vastly white. In an attempt to jump on the “Canada 150” celebration bandwagon, the school put up a banner in the hallway asking students to write something “positive” about Canada’s 150. My daughter, who is the granddaughter of both Anishnaabe Métis community members and West Indian immigrants, wrote “Founded on genocide. Built by slavery.”

What happened next is hard to believe. She was attacked by a group of white male students online and verbally in the school. She was quoted Wikipedia pages and right-leaning articles about how residential schools “weren’t that bad,” how slavery in Canada never happened, and how Canada is above reproach. Our house was egged while her grandmother and younger sister sat near the window reading. She was told to “go back to the reservation” if she hated Canada so much.

To be clear, my daughter is OK. She held her ground and met with school officials to talk both about the particulars of the incident and the issue of aggressive nationalism that excludes diversity in culture and opinion. She will be starting at York University this September with the goal of going to law school and sitting on the bench one day, which is how she sees making effective change. She spent the summer with her large, extended Indigenous family at powwows and gatherings and feels loved and protected. She’s great.

But she isn’t the child I’m worried about in this story.

For these particular young men, there is complacency in being Canadian. They grew up in communities where they didn’t have to think about Canada’s history as full of horrors. Where they learned that being Canadian meant “not being American” with all that baggage. I get it—who wants to inherit guilt? But what if it’s not guilt we’re asking you to inherit? What if it’s a sense of responsibility, of justice, of innovative goodness? What if we want to build a full history of our shared territory instead of one cobbled together out of select voices and personalities, which really is a literal white-washing of history? Isn’t that what is at the core of being Canadian?

No one is forcing anyone to rename the Toronto schools for an Indigenous figure (although Louis Riel Elementary does have a nice ring to it—there’s one in Calgary—and would keep it within the Founding Fathers category). What we’re asking is that you not force Indigenous people to send our children to a school named after a man who stole our grandparents and forced them into schools. What we are asking is to give all Canadian children a better chance. Surely even the most right-wing conservative nationalist could see how this would be problematic. It’s just so simple and decent. The Teachers’ Union gets it, our educators are moving on it, and I know parents who want the best for their children would agree.

The argument that we need to keep history free from political correctness so that we can all remember and do better doesn’t hold much water either. And are we really naming schools after people we recognize as a nation may be problematic? Are we truly saying, “This guy may have done some crap things, but let’s put his name up here so we can keep that discussion going”? Let’s teach our children about Macdonald, not make them line up under his banner. Let’s respect that fact that sometimes one nation’s genocide means that yes, we do have to have some respect and not send their children to a school emblazoned with the perpetrator’s name. Let’s be better at this. Let’s be more Canadian about this. For all our children.


Why John A. Macdonald’s name doesn’t belong on Canada’s schools

  1. Ontario Teacher Unions should be MORE concerned with how our children are doing INSIDE the school, rather than with the name on the outside of it. By all means, discuss MacDonald’s ideas with respect to how we feel today, but you cannot whitewash history simply in an effort to make someone “feel better”.

    • I see the left-wing morons in Canada are following in the footsteps of the left-wing morons in the US. Why now…many statues have been there for a hundred years…were they not “offensive” last year, 5 years ago, 50 years ago so, why now? Another band-wagon that fools decide to jump on…what’s next…book burnings, tearing down building?…nothing like erasing history…how very “1984”

  2. We can’t change history by tearing down reminders and pretending it didn’t happen. Every country on Earth has horrors in their past. Hopefully we learn from it and will do better in future. We remember MacDonald for what he accomplished not for for his failures or attitudes that aren’t acceptable now but were probably not uncommon at the time. I think we should remember what was done to Indigenous People and try to do what we can now to do better going forward, to listen to them and work with them on issues that remain going forward.

  3. How very USA – deny the past and demand perfection of everyone except one’s own clique.

    Perhaps instead of name-cleansing, the writer might help build a new school named for Louis Riel (also not a perfect man).

    • Unfortunately, by ignoring MacDonald’s documented failings, YOU are the one who is trying to deny the past.

      You are also trying to manufacture perfection by rejecting reality.

  4. If we are going to remove the sugar coating from history, lets be sure to remove it for everyone as no culture, group or even most individuals is without their faults in history, but then we will have to give schools, streets etc unique symbols for names as you can’t use letters or numbers for the sake of inclusion as certainly they would exclude or offend someone anymore. For example what would you call this school if not Sir John A MacDonald as I’m pretty sure no matter what you call it, its going to offend someone.

  5. To use the standard held by this author there would be no names on any of our buildings. All human beings have their flaws. Sir John A MacDonald surely had his, but he was the architect of this great experiment we call Canada. He was perhaps the first world leader to propose giving women the vote, his problematic views on certain races evolved, he worked tirelessly to build a nation. Canada is an amazing country and getting better every day. Banishing the man to the back pages of a history is not the answer.

    • Yes, all human beings have their flaws. But strangely, the white humans that we white folks choose to revere are completely devoid of flaws – judging by the history “as written” on statues and schools.

      MacDonald did great things. He also did awful things. Why is it that his accomplishments are celebrated, but his failures are banished to the “back pages of history”?

      How about recognizing both, or recognizing none? Too hard?

  6. Let’s be clear, during his time the concept that religious orders would betray their vows was unthinkable, and sending children to boarding school was the norm. By advocating for residential schools for natives, Macdonald was promoting the idea that indigenous were deserving and capable of an western education. For his time, this was a very progressive view (contrast with the views of even Abraham Lincoln who while he opposed slavery, also did not believe that blacks and whites were equals.

    This PC nonsense needs to stop. Why is it that it is people feasting at the taxpayer funded trough who seem to have the most time to pursue this radical agenda. Perhaps they need more real work to keep them busy.

  7. Justin Trudeau removed the name from a building in Ottawa because the Langevin may have been involved with residential schools but he is fine with his fathers name on Dorval airport even though Pierre was the architect of the boondoogle in Mirabel and the abuse that went with it. A lot of people hate politicians regardless of party affiliation with good reason but who hates their nurse. We should name all public edifices after nurses. I am here because my father spent four years being abused in a Japanese prison camp and my ancestors got together for sex. We are all here because of the past and it seems that most of those who complain are doing very well but still feel hard done by. I am considered a white male and will gladly share my life story and demonstrate all the benefits that came my way or not because of my looks or name. By the way Jacques cartier was a kidnapper and Frontenac was an Indian killer but we all have our skeletons.

  8. Paying tribute to MacDonald without recognizing his serious failings is just laziness.

    Do both. Create a plaque for every MacDonald school that describes his accomplishments and failures as PM. On every MacDonald statue, replace the tribute plaque with one that more accurately recounts history.

    I laugh at those like John Baird who wail and bellow about attempts to “erase” history. No, Mr. Baird – let’s erase historical errors and omissions, and tell the full story. The only reason NOT to do that is your desire to “whitewash” the past.