Why our prime ministers matter, despite their past sins

Canada’s history is more than the study of prime ministers. But we learn nothing, and deny our complexity, if we shunt them aside.

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)

Canada’s prime ministers are homeless. And the entire country is poorer for it.

In anticipation of Canada’s upcoming 150th birthday, several years ago a group of civic-minded citizens in southwestern Ontario sought to improve public appreciation of our shared history by commissioning and installing life-sized bronze statues of each of Canada’s 22 prime ministers in a large park in downtown Kitchener. It was to be a tourism attraction and conversation starter. Private funding would cover all expenses for the statues.

While Kitchener city hall was initially receptive, response from local residents was almost universally negative. According to a majority of public comments left on the city’s website, the “corrupt dead white men” who (mostly) comprise our country’s past leadership were entirely unsuitable for public commemoration. Kitchener city council quickly dropped the idea.

Then last year Wilfrid Laurier University, in neighbouring Waterloo, offered to make room for the now-homeless titans of Canadian history. The first statue, of Sir John A. Macdonald, was cast and placed in a prominent spot on campus. And the protests began once again. The group Students Against the Statue Project decried it on Facebook as “a visual embodiment of colonialism and an affront to the Indigenous students on campus. Furthermore, it contributes to the perpetuation of a white hetero-male historical narrative of power that erases the existence and achievemenets [sic] of people of color [sic], women, LGBTQ folks and differently abled folks.”

On Feb. 12, Laurier’s board of governors acquiesced to its little emperors and declared the statue plan an impediment to “inclusivity and diversity” on campus. Canada’s leaders are back out on the street.

It is in the nature of university students to demand the right to remake the world to their own satisfaction. This is as it always has been. But it ought to be in the nature of campus administrators to check such impulses when they threaten the integrity of the academic experience, are patently foolish, or do a disservice to Canadian history.

It’s unquestionably true that Canada has committed its share of errors and moral failings over the past 149 years. Whatever our past sins, however, it is also true that Canada today is a beacon to the rest of the world for the strength of our democracy, the height of our living standard and the depth of our commitment to diversity and pluralism. This modern and progressive Canada did not just spring into existence the moment a few precocious undergrads brushed the hair from their eyes. It’s a process that began long before Confederation—and with a dominant role played by the men and women put in charge of this country by the voting public. We shouldn’t be so quick to turn our backs on our past selves.

Canada’s history is, of course, much more than the study of prime ministers. But leadership matters greatly. An appreciation of the causes and implications of the Great Depression, for example, is impossible without understanding the part played by the “white hetero-male colonialists” who were in charge at the time. The same goes for Canada’s triumphs in the First and Second World Wars. What exactly can we learn from history if the only topics suitable for consideration are the roles played by Natives, LGBTQ and differently abled folks at pivotal moments in Canada’s past?

Statues are symbols. The symbolic meaning of the removal of Sir John A’s statue from the Laurier campus, as well as the earlier response from Kitchener’s citizenry, is that history is to be scrubbed clean of controversy and portrayed in a manner that indulges only victimhood and modern sensibilities. The demands of inclusivity and diversity now apparently require universities to shelter their students from any sight of their forebears and turn the once mind-broadening experience of a post-secondary education into a sterile “safe-space” where no uncomfortable truths need be confronted and no sensitivities triggered.

Yet history is rather more complicated than the latest mob currently allows. While Macdonald has borne the brunt of complaints for creating the residential school system and his alleged role in an “Indigenous genocide,” consider that in 1885 he put great political effort into a plan to give Indigenous peoples the vote in federal elections based on his belief that, as British subjects, they were owed the full rights of citizenship. It hardly seems the act of a genocidal racist. And when news of Native starvation on the Prairies arrived in Ottawa following the near-extinction of the buffalo, Macdonald launched a special council to investigate, and quadrupled the food relief budget between 1880 and 1882. “We cannot allow them to die for want of food,” he told the House of Commons.

History is complicated business. Ignoring it doesn’t make us smarter. Canada’s prime ministers deserve a home, and a chance to say their piece.


Why our prime ministers matter, despite their past sins

  1. They do have homes! In living hearts, far out of reach of pigeon excrement.

  2. This is a really poor article; it’s off the mark and misses the point on the discussion of diversity in history completely.

    I found this particular comment utterly absurd – “What exactly can we learn from history if the only topics suitable for consideration are the roles played by Natives, LGBTQ and differently abled folks at pivotal moments in Canada’s past?”.

    Seeing as how 99% of history until recently has covered not only White hetero-males, but economically and politically influential White hetero-males, we are hardly at risk of the aforementioned statement occurring. That foolish comment reminds me of those who worry that affirmative action will somehow lead to “reverse racism,” and make White people second-class citizens. Let’s take a step-back.

    The contributions of those not from dominant groups, including even working class White hetero-males, has been almost entirely excluded from the academic discipline of history until very recently. Social history and historical narratives that focus on the perspective and contributions of ordinary people, marginalised people, minorities, women, etc. is all relatively new, and I’m speaking as somebody who has a degree in history and has always been fascinated by our prime ministers. A focus on the upper-echelons of society is certainly warranted and necessary if we want to understand our past, but far too much history has focused on the rich and powerful, what was once known as the “Great Man Theory” of history (this idea that history was primarily driven by dynamic men in positions of leadership, and thus ignored everyone else).

    This article mentions the Great Depression, and certainly an understanding of our then leaders (Bennett and Mackenzie King) is important, but so too is an understanding of how ordinary people survived, struggled and resisted. How policy was sometimes pushed from the bottom up. The impoverished and hungry young men from the Relief Camps who rode the rails, women in sweat-shops who had to work inhuman hours lest they lose their job, coal mining families who suffered an almost feudal relationship with their employers, etc.

    What the author misses entirely is that there is a difference between understanding history and mythologising it. More often than not, statue construction, particularly of leaders, is about creating myths and commemorating supposed achievements rather than understanding them in a meaningful way. To my knowledge, nobody has gone through a university library burning every book about Sir John A. Macdonald.

    We should endeavour to understand Sir John A. Macdonald, warts and all, but it’s a fair question as to whether or not we wish to commemorate him. Many of his actions in the West would be considered criminal today, and he was unusually racist even amongst the standards of his contemporaries. Likewise, it’s important to understand the First World War, but that hardly means that we should celebrate its useless slaughter as some sort of “achievement”.

    • If you are against statues of Prime Ministers on the grounds that it give an incomplete account of history, then what would you support a statue of?

      For better or worse, these people led our country. While I don’t like the idea of a statue of Stephen Harper – his name will go down in Canadian history, and he should have a statue.

      • Part of my problem with this article, I have others, is that it conflates two different things – the serious academic discipline of history (that is understanding it in a meaningful way) and constructing statues in order to reinforce historical myths. The premise of this article is that the opposition of those students to the construction of a Macdonald statue means that they want to erase him from the history books, and that we cannot possibly understand our history if we only look at minorities – which is complete nonsense and misses the point entirely.

        1. The struggle for greater diversity in history does not mean that we will somehow ignore influential White heterosexual males. You have to look at all corners in order to gain an important understanding, and so much academia is dominated by studies of the rich and powerful, their marginalisation is rather unlikely to occur (I’m reminded of people who worry that affirmative action will cause Whites to be second-class citizens. It’s irrational, reactionary nonsense.)

        2. History and statue construction are two different things, a fact lost on the author of this unfortunate piece. It is a legitimate discussion as to who/what we wish to commemorate and why, and if those students don’t want a statue of a corrupt, cynic who was unusually racist even for his time I don’t blame them. It doesn’t that they’re burning every history book about the guy. Let’s backdown from the hyperbole.

      • Sir John’s statue belongs on Parliament Hill, along with every other prime minister, ditto with respect to his portraits, but it’s a fair conversation for campuses, municipalities and other communities to have on who/what they want to be commemorated on their space.

  3. “Trolls route Council” may be a better title?
    A few demonstrators don’t necessarily reflect majority public opinion. It seems very ironic that the students would protest against a Prime Ministers statue, at Wilfrid Laurier University… namesake of the seventh Prime Minister of Canada.
    I wonder how often they protest that, or if indeed those protesters were students of the University?
    Blindly striking at namesakes or statues does not confront perceived grievances. Instead it may be celebrated that the times change along with attitudes. I would not agree with many decisions some of the past PMs made, but I am glad they help maintain our Sovereignty and Canadian Conscience.
    Perhaps being reminded of our past Leaders, can encourage debate of past misdeeds, and find an avenue to correct them, and celebrate the positive.

    I applaud the author for taking on the subject. Good article. I’ll take a couple statues for my front lawn it there are no other takers.

Sign in to comment.