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

John Geddes on the reason we remember Sir John A. and the importance of weighing historical figures based on more than their flaws


 
Sir John A. MacDonald's statue in Kingston, Ontario on June 21, 2012. (Lars Hagberg/CP)

Sir John A. MacDonald’s statue in Kingston, Ont., on June 21, 2012. (Lars Hagberg/CP)

Hardly anyone minded when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced, back on June 21, National Aboriginal Day, that Ottawa’s imposing Langevin Block would be renamed, rather unimaginatively, the Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council.

After all, Hector-Louis Langevin isn’t exactly a beloved household name. Who was this guy anyhow? The only Canadians likely to have any inkling are those who paid close attention to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which singled him out in its final report as a leading 19th-century architect of the federal government’s reviled residential schools policy, which blighted generations of First Nations people.

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

But history rarely allows for such tidy summings-up. Langevin was also a strong advocate for Quebec and a powerful figure in the governments of Sir John A. Macdonald. So if the plaque bearing Langevin’s name had to be unscrewed from the yellowish stone of a Second Empire style building across from Parliament, what about the many other buildings, old and new, that bear the name of the great prime minister who was his boss? There’s no denying that Macdonald was also a vocal advocate of assimilating First Nations, whose words on matters of race now make us cringe.

Still, the notion seems ridiculous. Who would seriously propose chiselling the name of Confederation’s most legendary figure off any façade? Well, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, that’s who. The union recently passed a resolution calling on Ontario boards of education to look at taking John A.’s name off the province’s schools. The teachers voted in the shadow of the bitter U.S. debate over taking down monuments to Confederate heroes from the Civil War, like the Robert E. Lee statue that was the flashpoint for the street violence in Charlottesville, Va.

Let’s stipulate the obvious: No thoughtful reader of history imagines that simply indicting figures of the past based on the standards of the present is a useful exercise. Few would survive such a culling. Consider arguably the two most revered political leaders of the past century, at least in the English-speaking world, Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Commenting on the fate of Indigenous peoples of North America and Australia, Churchill once said, “I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.” FDR’s wartime detention of Japanese Americans seems even worse since historians have turned up anti-Japanese views in his earlier writings, including a warning against “the mingling of Asiatic blood with European or American blood.”

RELATED: The case for keeping ‘Langevin Block’

There are countless examples like these covering all sorts of historical figures. Among the bronze statues on Parliament Hill, to bring this closer to home, stands a cheerful grouping representing the “Famous Five,” the leaders of the fight for political rights for women in the 1920s. Unfortunately, one of them, Emily Murphy, also infamously wrote racist screeds (in Maclean’s, it must be admitted) during the same era.

Murphy is not, however, memorialized on the Hill for her bigotry. She’s there because of her part in the fight to have women legally recognized as “persons.” And this suggests a way to bring some order to this argument. Among the key questions to ask, in considering which names and monuments should be preserved, is why a luminary was deemed worthy of being honoured, what aspect of their accomplishment earned that veneration, and how they are mainly remembered today.

So, in the case of those statues of Confederate generals, they were often erected in the South mainly to remind black citizens of a racist social order. Thus, the purpose of such monuments invalidates them, regardless of any complexity in what historians might tell us about Lee and the rest.

READ MORE: More than monuments: A look at America’s Confederate symbols

And then there is the quite different question, not of why a name was honoured in the first place, but what it has come to signify over time. Langevin’s legacy is now so narrowly associated with residential schools that his name conjures up little else for the few who know it. That alone is a strong argument for removing it from a major federal building.

By contrast, Macdonald’s towering reputation is about so much more that reducing his legacy to a racist taint—serious as it is—isn’t reasonable. His name still stands for a sweeping vision of Canada that he largely brought about, although his stature is seriously debated these days by historians. A similar case can be easily be made for Churchill and Roosevelt, and likely even Murphy. Their shortcomings are rightly probed by historians and taught in classrooms. But those dark failings can’t be allowed to eclipse all the rest.

There is no simple way to draft up an acceptable pantheon of historical heroes. Each biography calls up a unique response. We should start by relying on judicious historians to sift what a man or woman who lived long ago said and did, which is no easy undertaking. Then we should ask why they were deemed worthy of recognition, and whether that motivation still feels right to us. And if that’s the test, there will be no need to start dreaming up new names quite yet for schools named after Sir John A. Macdonald.


 

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

  1. I used to think like this. Then I talked to indigenous teenagers who spoke about how it feels to walk into a non-reserve school for a volleyball tournament. It is screamingly clear to them just how much their education is valued next to the well-maintained, well-funded town school with its science labs and band rooms. They talked about seeing messages every day in history textbooks that weren’t written with them in mind about incidents and people that changed their own families, atrocities glossed over.

    I learned in school that John A Macdonald was the first Prime Minister, drank vodka from his water glass in the House of Commons and was a model of personal conflict in the Pacific Scandal. Noone mentioned that he led the plan to conduct genocide on indigenous people. He approved plans for deliberate starvation, land theft (even after treaties were signed) and re-education camps disguised as schools.

    Should an indigenous kid be forced to walk into a school named to honour the man that did this to their families? (Should black South African kids be forced to attend Willem de Klerk High School? They decided no). I also note that this whole thing started with students: when we teach kids the full history behind their leaders, does anyone think they will not ask for more removals like this?

    So John A. and Emily Murphy did other things too. Statues to political leaders seem fine on Parliament Hill to honour their contributions there. But putting either of their names on schools isn’t an appropriate honour. School names should inspire educational achievement for the kids and these people quite simply do not.

  2. How about LaFontaine and Baldwin instead?

  3. This article is cogently argued – especially in focusing on WHY people are being honoured – but I’m saddened that it should be necessary at all. Geddes writes that “no thoughtful reader of history imagines that simply indicting figures of the past based on the standards of the present is a useful exercise”. I guess the key word is thoughtful. The cheapest and most brittle moralism is self-righteousness about the past – it requires zero sacrifice and zero courage. It’s especially shameful that such a display of ignorance and ingratitude should be demonstrated by teachers.

  4. I congratulate the teachers for bringing this forward for discussion, and their empathy for what the name means to our Indigenous.
    That said, he was still our first Prime Minister and the history of our country simply can’t ignore him. But, fitting to have his name on a school–in order to educate, not just the children who graduate from its classrooms, but all of us, starting now. Keep the name on the school. Create a small garden filled with plants and plaques telling the Other Side of the Story. Also include a large plaque in the front lobby of the school(s). Include our Indigenous history–don’t wipe history out altogether.

    • Agree entirely. I’ve been thinking for days – why is nobody looking at an obvious compromise, like retaining the name (or statue) but creating another educational element that includes the full story, not just the “patriotic” one.

      Plaques could be added to the entrance of every MacDonald school, and those already attached to statues and monuments could be replaced. Describe his accomplishments as prime minister, and also his failings.

      “Erasing” history is not a reasonable goal – but presenting history accurately certainly is.

  5. Enough of this nonsense already! Sir John A. Macdonald was Canada’s first Prime Minister and as such was a visionary that not only brought Canada from being a colony to a Dominion but also was instrumental in the Canadian Pacific Railway initiative that was itself of primary importance for Canada to become a Nation from Sea unto Sea.

    That we have a vocal minority of perpetual complainers now upset about one thing that was a minor part of the PM’s history is a ridiculous and pathetic excuse to remove this great Canadian’s name from our schools statues of him from out towns and cities.

    The last of the residential schools were closed decades ago. The children in school today have never attended a residential school. These ongoing complaints about the residential schools are now nothing more than an attempt to guilt trip the rest of us into paying even more money that what has already been paid. (I am the only one that remembers the settlement that was reached back in the1990’s?) By continuing to pander to this guilt tripping we are not doing anyone any favours. Not only are we literally wasting taxpayers money, we are also enabling a group of people to victimize themselves. These people need to leave this past in the past and get on with their lives. Stop using the residential schools as a crutch to legitimize your own inaction and slothfulness in taking control of your own lives and you working to create your own better future. By continuing to play the victim for generations you are only condemning yourselves to perpetual dependence on other people being suckers and fools.

    • The bitterness of your comments don’t help your argument.

    • To reduce our nation’s founder to one issue, however important, on which our thinking has progressed is so self-righteous and short-sighted as to be almost unbelievable. Of course Macdonald was flawed. But his commemoration is NOT comparable to Confederate monuments that celebrate people specifically because of a hateful thing – it’s much more akin to celebrating Thomas Jefferson for his contribution to freedom despite such flaws as slave ownership. Incidentally, Sir John was perhaps the first leader of a national government to advocate female suffrage, and his 1885 speech lamenting Canada’s failure to accept the full equality of women makes remarkable reading even today: “I am strongly of the opinion, and have been for a good many years, and I had hoped that Canada would have the honour of first placing women in the position that she is certainly eventually, after centuries of oppression, to obtain…I had hoped that we in Canada would have the great honour of leading the cause of securing the complete emancipation of women, of completely establishing her equality as a human being a member of society with man.” How many of our supposed educators know that? And how many of them will make a public contribution that amounts to even a tiny fraction of his?

  6. Wasn’t the real tragedy of residential schools a result of abusive teachers, caretakers, administrators, priests, nuns, etc who operated the individual schools. Even if they weren’t actively involved they were guilty by turning blind eyes to what was happening. This was common to all residential school, religious schools, and orphanages of the past when children were seen as less than human (a version of ‘be seen and not heard’, ‘spare the rod spoil the child’ culture). In regular schools the abuse still happened to the extent possible (and still happens today with special needs students or in fundamentalist religious schools).

    The logical extension of the desire to take down the false heroes is banishing a lot more than just names and statues. Otherwise the institutions remaining perpetuate the behaviour.

    • No, the “real tragedy” is the white supremacist attitude that produced the schools, based on an almost religious belief that native culture and society must be eradicated. Abusive operators were simply an extension of that attitude … which continues today, across Canada.

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