As of last week, one less metallic rendition of Sir John A. Macdonald hovers by a public building in Canada. The country’s first post-Confederation prime minister used to stand, hands rigidly clasped, at the top of the steps to the entrance of Victoria City Hall. He’s there no longer, though; Victoria’s mayor says it’s a step to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
Macdonald is still to be found encased in bronze or stone in a considerable number of civic spots around the country. He is memorialized in a park in Regina, another place named for the queen who assented to confederation, though that statue has a way of attracting spray paint. He stands on a plinth on Parliament Hill, facing westward; his East Block office is still shown off to capital visitors. A high school in Upper Tantallon, N.S., bears his name.
But even this one un-commemoration—after the Ontario teachers’ union mooted the idea of removing his name from public schools in the province that carry it last year—has become cause for alarm to those who see a creeping tide of “historical revisionism” washing over the nation. Removing the statue, or renaming a school, or shuffling someone off a banknote—these are acts of erasure, they say, condemning history to the metaphorical dustbin in the service of the equally illusory “political correctness.”
What this debate has made clear is that the past, and how we remember it, has become one of the major battlegrounds in the new culture wars. Decisions about who we commemorate, which events and people are recorded in the history books, and what narratives we tell ourselves about how we got here have real consequences for our societies and the place of marginalized groups within them. Macdonald, and the Canadian context, is but one example.
But here’s what’s being missed by critics who charge that challenges to the present version of the past are effectively attempts to erase it: We are simply trying to make it more complete. The mission is not to exclude certain people from the story of us, but to more accurately remember them, and to rewrite peoples who have been purposely excluded from that story into it; not to replace the facts that we have in our shared set, but to update them and to re-place the facts and narratives that have been left out back in. That the characters being reconsidered are often the “great” men, and less often women, to whom the creation or salvation of nations is ascribed, and that doing so threatens the myths on which many of the peoples of those nations build their sense of belonging, is what makes their reaction to these efforts so charged.
Societies are built on shared sets of facts, ideas and stories. In other words, societies are built on canons.
History is a subset of the canon, containing events and figures from the past that are of some interest or importance. Religion is another, consisting of beliefs and rituals. A nation is based on a canon: groups of people share history and principles, from which come culture, economy, and systems of law and government. Debate relies on a canon: once you and I agree to a base of facts and ideas, we can use those to make opposing arguments and arrive at different conclusions; without it, we are simply talking past each other. The canon is what you are invoking when you appeal to common sense.
What’s in the canon is not just an ungoverned collection of the things most people accept or believe. It is not unhistorical or neutral. It reflects the interests of the powerful within a society. And it is not uncontested—people are always trying to add facts or beliefs to it.
All this matters because it is only when something becomes canon that we can build on it. If you and I agree murder is wrong, then we can make a law sanctioning it that we can agree to abide by. If that is not among our accepted set of facts, then each time a murder occurs I have to convince you that it is wrong before we can move on to working out what to do about it. Making a law that covers future instances becomes essentially impossible.
Those who benefit from the structures and norms built on top of the canon are incentivized to prevent additions or changes to it. Marginalized groups, meanwhile, must try to get their facts included to avoid the exhausting process of having to repeatedly prove them, thus preventing them from making sustained progress.
If this all feels abstract, let’s make it concrete. Take the example of the controversy over that Macdonald statue. “We’re in an era of reconciliation, and no one’s erasing anything, but we have to understand the complexity of history, and that’s what this process is about,” Victoria mayor Lisa Helps told the CBC.
Opponents certainly don’t see it that way. Jason Kenney, the leader of Alberta’s United Conservative Party, called it “historical vandalism.” Andrew Scheer, the leader of the federal Conservative Party, declared it imprudent to “allow political correctness to erase our history.” And when the Ontario teachers union put forward their idea of removing the man’s name from schools, the National Post’s John Ivison summed up this line of thinking by describing his reaction to their decision as “scorn, with added vitriol.”
Ivison sees history as “a record of things past that should not be altered in Orwellian fashion by some Ministry of Truth to suit its own political ends.” The canon, he’s suggesting, is immutable—once something goes in, it cannot be removed or edited. He contrasts this with people who think of history as “the commemoration of the past in a way that confers values and endorsement.”
This is a view of Macdonald that is net positive, founded on his role as the foremost father of Confederation. That is how he exists in the canon, and that is why there are statues of him and schools named after him.
But Macdonald’s government starved Indigenous peoples to appropriate their territories, and oversaw the foundations for the residential school system, which fit with his fondness for forced assimilation. His ministry also imposed the Chinese head tax, later hiked dramatically by Wilfrid Laurier. These facts were absent from the canon until very recently, and calls for the removal of names and statues are based on them. (It is worth noting that the group that made the school-renaming suggestion in Ontario did not specifically represent Indigenous people).
We have to choose which of these actions resides in the canon.
What defenders of the status quo like to call the “erasure of history” is actually the restoration of parts that have been purposely or conveniently excluded from it. They forget the maxim ascribed to both George Orwell and Winston Churchill—another lionized villain—that history is written by the victors. Rather than throw the “great men” that our societies institutionally revere down Orwell’s memory hole, marginalized groups are instead trying to pull the misdeeds and crimes of those leaders up out of it—to re-write themselves into the narratives from which their oppressors erased them.
History is not zero-sum—being part of history does not inherently “confer endorsement”—but commemoration is. Erecting a statue or naming a building conveys a particular message: this was a great man, and we choose to remember him as such. Removing those markers is an acknowledgment that a more thorough understanding of the figure does not justify the honour that turning them into a symbol denotes.
In defence of Macdonald, supporters like Ivison approvingly cite the standards set out by a recent Yale University committee for revising monuments, in which one of the criterion is whether the views of the memorialized figure were germane to their time. It is a breathtakingly callous assessment to make. What context can be offered for the starvation of Indigenous families? Human rights as we know them now may not have existed in that era, but they carry no less moral weight because of it.
But for argument’s sake, let’s follow this line of thinking and pretend that Macdonald’s ideas were “more moderate than those of his political opponents.” Restricting the frame of reference in assessing Macdonald’s views about a group to others members of a powerful class whose decisions systematically decimated those people seems like a way to guarantee a favourable outcome. This does not ask what Indigenous people at the time thought of Macdonald’s thoughts about them; their views are not recorded in the canon for consultation in these debates.
It seems unlikely that it would have been much comfort to the Indigenous and Bengali people starved under Macdonald and Churchill respectively that the attitudes and actions of the men that condemned them to miserable deaths were unremarkable in the context of their own time. Neither prime minister is known to have inquired what their victims thought about the matter. And the dead have no political opinions—or none that we can now ask for, at any rate.
The Yale committee’s process also considers the “principal legacy” of the historical figure in question. Macdonald’s defenders fill in this box with Confederation, or simply with everything good that happened in Canada after it. But to the people this man starved, it is the abuses they ordered or allowed and his disregard for the humanity of anyone who did not share his white skin. When writing the hagiographies of men like Macdonald, the defenders of the status quo address those actions in as few lines as possible: There is sadly no doubt, it’s also true, that our hero did some terrible things, but let he who is without sin and so on, and anyway, here are a few thousand words on his great deeds.
It’s worth noting that the Victoria statue was installed in 1982, hardly in the rosy retrospective period following Macdonald’s passing. But that was still 14 years before the last residential school in Canada closed, and decades before the government apologized or struck the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, so perhaps it should be unsurprising: He is, after all, the father of Confederation—and so he and his line of thinking is part of this country’s firmament.
And indeed, because Macdonald is a founding father, complicating the memory of a figure like this risks something greater than one man’s reputation. Reconsidered this way, the battle is not between historical preservationists and revisionists, but between defenders of the status quo and marginalized groups seeking to have their facts and histories included in society’s collective set. It is why this conversation is such an entrenched, and angry one.
There’s an “inseparable relationship between the representation of the first Prime Minister and the narrative Canadians tell themselves about their origins generally,” wrote Dr. Hayden King, an Anishinaabe scholar, advisor to the dean of Ryerson University on Indigenous education and director of the Yellowhead Institute thinktank, on Macdonald’s bicentennial in 2015.
Which of Macdonald’s actions are considered canon has significant consequences, because they are what the idea of Canada is built on. “Sincerely challenging Macdonald’s legacy might open the door to fundamentally re-examining any shared notion of Canadian progress, Canadian values, and Canadian institutions,” King wrote.
Indeed, Canada’s legitimacy is grounded in part in Macdonald’s legacy: a great man who helped start a great undertaking, the trajectory of which has been steadily upward ever since. Objecting to Victoria’s statue removal, Senator Leo Housakos called him the “founder of [the] best nation on earth,” and a “catalyst of bringing the two founding peoples of Canada together”—a tweet that excludes those other, First, Nations that were on this soil long before the pair of peoples he presumably means, the English and French, got here. That’s what erasure looks like, in service of the narrative of “the greatest nation on earth.”
Maintaining this positive story about the sequence of events that led us here is crucial for those invested in things staying as they are; if we accepted that the repeated oppression of Indigenous peoples was built into the country’s foundations from the very beginning, not just a series of tragic mistakes, we would have to consider remedies that go beyond simply moving our mouths in the shape of an apology.
While the canon has gatekeepers, it cannot be imposed on the rest of a society against their will. The inherent need to feel good about oneself—I’m not bad, right?—creates an incentive to believe that society itself is good, and that how we got here was for the most part good. Updating the canon requires overcoming the instinctual resistance to any challenge to this version of the present and past. But mine is a moral argument, not a pragmatic one. Any sense of social cohesion and progress built on an incomplete canon is inherently false.
The canon cannot be allowed to change, because then the conclusions that are based on it would have to as well. We would have to stop telling Canada’s story as a steady upward trajectory with a few minor indiscretions along the way. And that narrative justifies the social hierarchy as it currently exists; if systemic injustice and oppression can be denied, there is no need to reform the system itself.
Solutions offered during commemoration controversies often take one of two forms. The first is an “and” approach—why not just honour figures who are not dead white men, and let existing memorializations remain?
Consider banknotes, for example. Viola Desmond, a Black woman jailed in 1946 for breaking segregation rules in a theatre in New Glasgow, N.S., will be portrayed on the new $10 bill going into circulation next year, while prime ministers William Lyon MacKenzie King and Sir Robert Borden will no longer appear on Canadian currency.
In a series of tweets, columnist Andrew Coyne expressed incredulity that the prime ministers of the World Wars and Great Depression would lose their places, and suggested that if new figures are to be commemorated, “[n]othing says you can’t put great Canadians on both sides of the bills.” (Liberal cabinet minister Catherine McKenna suggested a similar salve for the Macdonald situation, mooting the erecting of “a second statue or monument next to a controversial figure to represent Indigenous history at a particular site.”)
Take that approach, and our banknotes will soon come to resemble the album art for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But aesthetic concerns aside, putting Desmond’s portrait on the flip-side of the fiver, say, would force her to share the bill with Laurier, who in 1911 signed an order-in-council banning Black immigrants from landing in Canada.
Uncommemorating actually expands the canon. Take King’s portrait off the currency, and perhaps our image of him has room to grow beyond the one-note “prime minister who led us through the Second World War” to include the internment of Japanese-Canadians and turning away of Jewish refugees, details you will not find on the $50 bill.
If turning this into a teachable moment seems patronizing, it may at least seem familiar. That’s the second “solution”—that monuments to people like Macdonald stay up, but that plaques be mounted alongside to also detail their less honourable actions. But statues make for more attractive selfie backgrounds than plaques, and “Sir John A. Macdonald* He Created Canada But Also Starved A Lot of People Public School” would take up a lot of space above the door of the building. “Removing the statue is actually creating an opportunity to talk about other aspects of history that have heretofore been erased,” Victoria’s Helps told the Toronto Star.
Whether or not history is “the commemoration of the past in a way that confers values and endorsement,” in Ivison’s words, statues and building names convey prestige. It is what they’re designed to do—unveiling the first statue of Macdonald in Hamilton, Ont. on Nov. 1, 1893, prime minister Sir John Thompson called it “the image of one of the most illustrious men of our generation.” Leaving monuments such as that one in place is a way to protect a particular vision of the past, not history itself.
“Canon” once meant a list of the names of recognized saints. But a name on a list is not nearly a full telling of a person’s life or a people’s history. It is well past time for the contents of our canon, and our understanding of it, to expand.
MORE ABOUT HISTORY:
- Monuments aren’t museums, and history suffers when we forget that
- ‘Pass, friend’: Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s words in Kingston, Ont., resonate today
- A century later, a vicious anti-Greek riot in Toronto offers lessons for today
- Despite all the preparations, royal weddings can sometimes go so very wrong