Rewriting history? That's how history is written in the first place -

Rewriting history? That’s how history is written in the first place

Opinion: As the debate over John A. Macdonald rages on, we must remember that revisiting history is an act of making a new history

Sir John A. Macdonald. (1815-1891) National Archives of Canada/CP

Sir John A. Macdonald. (1815-1891) National Archives of Canada/CP

If you’ve been following the debate over whether Sir John A. Macdonald—prime minister, lawyer, architect of Confederation, corrupt politician, and functional alcoholic—should have his name removed from schools and buildings in Ontario, you’ve likely encountered histrionic reactions from those who decry such efforts as erasing history or re-writing our past or genetically engineering political correctness into Canadians.

The “history is under attack!” responses are predictable, but that’s not their critical deficiency. No, the greatest weakness in that argument is that it fetishizes a particular account of history, ignoring what history is, what it represents, and what it does. Many of the quickest takes about the “problem with re-writing history” are sops for old-school culture, mopping up buckets of indignation from those whose historical experiences and values seem rather well-represented in our official accounts of our past, as well as our acknowledgements and celebrations of events and figures.

This all started last week when the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) cracked open Pandora’s box by passing a motion to “examine and rename schools and buildings named after Sir John A. Macdonald.” The impetus for dropping the sometimes-beloved whiskey-soaked codger? “[H]is central role as the architect of genocide against Indigenous peoples.” I’d say the punishment fits the crime here, except it doesn’t; being structurally complicit in the deaths of many peoples and their culture while initiating an ongoing history of violence against the descendants of those peoples seems to warrant a rather more severe reprimand. But let’s set that aside.

This debate has been a long time coming. We should have had it in earnest a long time ago, given changes to the makeup of Canadian society and the longstanding injustices that remain woefully and shamefully under-addressed or unaddressed entirely, especially our relationship with Indigenous peoples. But the debate thus far hasn’t sufficiently acknowledged one crucial consideration: revisiting our history—reassessing it and how we think about it—is central not only to correcting the record in some cases, but also to moving forward as a country. History is not a static moment or series of moments; history is an ongoing project that connects past generations to the present, and it is built by human beings who make choices about what we admit to, what we ignore, what we celebrate, and what we condemn.

The preferences, norms, and values of a society change over time; the present is a reflection of what we want to represent us, right now—and so it is perfectly reasonable, and often necessary, for a country to revisit what in its history it chooses to emphasize and celebrate. This is, after all, how history is written in the first place.

COUNTERPOINT: Why Macdonald’s name should remain on our schools

Now, no one is suggesting that we completely strike Macdonald and other historical figures who are implicated in practices or actions we now find unacceptable or abhorrent from the history books. No one is arguing that we should forget Macdonald’s legacy as a critical part of Confederation. We’re not turning the porch light off and pretending we’re not home should he pop by.

All the ETFO and others are suggesting is that in some instances, we should choose not to celebrate and honour Macdonald by naming schools and buildings after him, which seems rather reasonable given that he was complicit in the abusive and murderous residential schools system as well as other (what we would now call) crimes against Indigenous peoples. If a democratic society chooses to live its history by shifting who and what it emphasizes and celebrates, then bully for it—especially if a shift in focus is used to foreground and address historical and contemporary injustices and to renew efforts at healing persistent wounds. This reassessment of the past and how we live in the present is only controversial if your understanding of history is static and your commitment to your country is monolithic.

Historian Sean Carleton captured this line of argument well, reminding us that history is always political and never objective, and that while facts are objective, history is not. “We need to remember that both naming and renaming are political things that need debate,” Carleton said in a piece that ran in the Calgary Herald. “Names are not neutral and that’s what I think is somewhat frustrating about the claim that changing the name is erasing history.” Precisely.

Cherie Dimaline, a Métis woman, wrote in Today’s Parent that history is indeed political, as well as ongoing and alive in the present, especially the Canadian history of violence against Indigenous peoples. “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,” she writes. “It is, in fact, a push to actively lose history….I hear all the time that colonization happened 400 years ago, that it’s so far gone that we shouldn’t be so sensitive…. Colonization didn’t happen 400 years ago; it began 400 years ago and continues today. Right now.”

Carleton and Dimaline remind us that history is ongoing and disputed; as we live, and make choices about how we remember and view our own histories, we create history anew, whether we care to acknowledge that or not. Those who oppose dropping Macdonald’s name from schools and buildings smuggle in a comfort with a broad conceit of history that isn’t universally shared, one that carries water for some but not for others; one person’s “re-writing of history” may be another’s rectification of history. A sophisticated understanding of where we come from takes this understanding of history for granted as a starting point and accepts that the past is more than a series of fixed written records, and our conception of it certainly isn’t objective.

As long as we humans have had history, we’ve been re-writing it. In fact, our history is the history of “erasing”—that is, revisiting and revising—our past. Canada is no exception to this practice, and nor should we be. Indeed, it may be the case that the best way to continue as a country is through an ongoing and vigorous debate about who we are, where we come from, what we value, and what we choose to celebrate, emphasize, and honour in our public spaces.


Rewriting history? That’s how history is written in the first place

  1. ‘History is written by the victors’

    What we need is the truth.

    • Whose truth?
      “The final truth is: There is no truth.” – Bob Geldof.

      • Yes indeed there is truth…..objective truth, not some Boomer nonsense

        • Your limited knowledge of life shows that your truth is not universal.

          • LOL oh grow up collared one

  2. When we name places after a person (or something with supposed human form / attributes) it is always done through the romantic lens of a few people. Given that anything with consciousness probably has done something that is or may be construed to be noxious to a certain portion of the population place names should be limited to numbers or geographical, botanical, or zoological references.

    • I agree John Wheatley. Of course the practice of naming healthcare facilities after those who donate the money to build them will likely continue because that is a matter of dollars and common sense. Also, people like the late Terry Fox should be honoured for their selfless contributions to society. I can’t imagine that any part that young man’s life story could be “construed to noxious to a certain proportion of the population” now or in the future.

  3. Some problems here with this article in terms of use of language.

    “All the ETFO and others are suggesting is that in some instances, we should choose not to celebrate and honour Macdonald by naming schools and buildings after him, ”

    Very well. I would agree with this, that in future, no more schools ought to be named after Sir John A.

    As far as history is concerned, the original writing of it is not a re-writing, as the title of this article suggests. someone writes it, and then later, someone re-writes it, but the original is the first writing.

    Revisiting history (that term also was used incorrectly) is not the same a rewriting it. One can re-visit a story about history, or a place, or an article written about something, but one can easily come away from the place, or article, with the same understanding of it that one had in the first place, confirmed through the revisiting. Re-writing it means to change one’s understanding of it, for oneself, or in this case, what people want is to write Sir John A out of the story altogether.

    Rather than rewrite history, in the history book about Sir John A, or on the plaques commemorating him, why not just add to what has been written, explaining how the understanding of the significance of his life’s work has been changed for many people, and then explain why (the residential schools and his part in that) and add it to the new, revised history book, and add it to the schools’ commemorative plaque or yearbook, so people will come to know both this new version and the old version, and let that be a valuable lesson in history at the same time.

  4. There was no indigenous genocide. THAT is rewriting history.
    if you are going to try to make a reasoned argument about facts and history, at least get the facts correct

  5. That is a lot of rewritten history like Aboriginals do just to make the Aboriginals look like “pure as the driven snow” and Whites look evil. history, as studied, has a lot of good and bad in it and that is what built this country as it does today!!!! There was no Indigenous genocide. If there were then that group would not exist!! THAT is rewriting history, if you are going to try to make a reasoned argument about facts and history, at least get the facts correct, study history and learn from it but don’t destroy it for future generations for your own selfish benefit. History happened, happens get used to it!! get over trying to destroy others history while embellishing your own under the falsehood of perfection!!!!!!

    • Alright, then there was mostly successful attempted genocide.

      What happened to indigenous people in this country, as well as in the United States, meets every definition in international law and UN declarations of the crimes of both physical and cultural genocide.

      And, so we are clear, I have a Master’s and a Bachelor’s degree in history, and am employed as a historian. I have studied with some of the best historians in this country, experts in both Canadian history and indigenous history and policy, including one professor who was a consultant with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

      I have studied history. What happened and what continues to happen constitutes genocide. The fact that indigenous people have survived the atrocities committed and managed to maintain even a shred of their cultures should be held up as a testament to their resilience and something worthy of respect and praise. The fact that not all of them are dead yet should be celebrated, not used as an attack or a means to deny what happened to them.

      • Cory Baldwin
        Wouldn’t you say this subject of genocide is about intent, that it is mean to be applied to the attempted destruction of the people themselves? I don’t know how you can say that what happened to the indigenous peoples here meets every definition of the term genocide.

        The matter of the residential schools wasn’t meant to destroy the people themselves, although it could be argued that the intent was to make them the same as the white man, in language, culture, etc. Maybe what happened originally in the battles between the natives and the newcomers, could be seen as an attempted genocide, but not the residential schools. That’s stretching things a bit too far.

        I realize the indigenous peoples would like to make a comparison between the schools and concentration camps, but I think that would be a real piece of devious mental work to make the schools act as the destroyers of the young people, and thus the tribes.

        That politician was right when she said she thought the original motive was not to do damage. But sometimes, social coercion does just that. It hurts people. It hurt that young woman who eventually killed herself after being filmed throwing up of the window with a boy behind her, thrusting into her. It’s an unpleasant image to consider, and to remember, but this kind of activity – drinking and sex – isn’t unusual, nor meant to do harm, just to get girls to conform.

        On some level or other, we have all experienced social coercion and abuse from those with more power than ourselves. If you are one of those closer to the top, please don’t try to defend yourselves by claiming innocence.

        When I came here from England the teacher didn’t approve of the way I wrote the letter ‘r’, and I lost a mark for doing it that way, so I learned to change the way I wrote. But I remembered it. I remember coming to this foreign country and having to adapt to its ways, even though they were strange to me and some of them were idiotic. But that’s what happens when country is trying to find its identity – it makes rules and forces the inhabitants to adapt. And that includes schooling. And if the indigenous people had not learned how to write they wouldn’t be complaining about the residential schools now.

  6. I once attended a lecture by Richard Gwyn, the journalist who wrote a two part biography of Macdonald a few years ago. He literally argued that MacDonald was the greatest friend and champion that indigenous people in this country ever had because of one quote that implied that maybe they should possibly qualify for voting rights.