Illustration: Amy Chen

In late August 2017, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario voted to remove Sir John A. MacDonald’s name from Ontario public schools [1]. The motion, which follows ongoing reconciliation efforts within school communities, protests what members see as a lack of acknowledgement of MacDonald’s role in the systemic discrimination and persecution of Aboriginal peoples, and urges consideration for students whose ancestors and cultures were targeted.

As the saying goes, every tale has two sides. For John A. MacDonald, this could not be more accurate. To this day, MacDonald’s leadership in shaping Canadian democracy and uniting the country are widely celebrated. And while the first Prime Minister is remembered for his great deeds, his wrongdoings often fly under the radar. Although MacDonald’s railway project exploited and killed thousands of Chinese labourers, it is remembered as a key milestone towards uniting the country [2]. Likewise, his Indian Act would force Aboriginal peoples onto reserves with scarce resources, and lay the groundwork for residential schools that would abuse generations of Aboriginal children [3].

If we truly condemn the grievous deeds of a historical figure—no matter how great their accomplishments—is it right to name public buildings and monuments in their honour? In MacDonald’s case, naming schools after him serves to honour his accomplishments and invaluable contributions, but risks being seen as an overlooking or even an approval of his wrongdoings against many. Certainly, the message this sends to the community, especially those whose ancestors were targeted by MacDonald, is not one of acceptance and safety, and may only be detrimental to the school environment and the students’ learning.

However, MacDonald is a significant part of Canadian history and his contributions to Canada are both undoubtedly invaluable and worth remembering; it seems appropriate that schools—who teach history—may highlight important historical figures. Thus, considering MacDonald’s starring role in Canadian history, it seems acceptable that MacDonald be featured on schools—if and only if the local community has no qualms with the name. To schools, accommodating students and cultures who feel targeted should be a priority. Launching individual community inquiries and talking to the school community would provide better regional perspective on the impact of MacDonald’s name on students and the community. Assuming that each community would be affected in the same way is unreasonable; hearing the opinions of people who are actually directly affected honours the reconciliation process without blindly leaning towards one side.

That said, even if a community accepts MacDonald’s name, there should be more featured than just the name Sir John A. MacDonald. Naming buildings after controversial historical figures serves to highlight their important contributions, but without clarification or elaboration, their crimes may be overlooked or even dismissed. Instead, there should be clear and prominent acknowledgement of the role MacDonald played in the targeting of minorities within Canada. Whether it be through accompanying sign or otherwise, recognizing that MacDonald was no saintly figure and that his legacy is deeply flawed allows MacDonald’s accomplishments to be celebrated while ensuring that his crimes are not overlooked, and the struggles faced by minorities are respected.

Moreover, some argue that removing John A. MacDonald’s name from schools will only begin a slippery slope that will eventually lead us to justify omitting, or “erasing” MacDonald from history. However, those that argue that MacDonald should remain on all buildings just as it is today are advocating that we turn a blind eye to his crimes. Herein lies the true fault—not in highlighting MacDonald, but rather, in not telling the full story. Blindly embracing MacDonald’s name on buildings without acknowledging the struggles he caused is truly how history is being “erased.” Whether or not schools bear John A. MacDonald’s name, his legacy should be remembered for what it was—the good with the bad. There is no problem in recognizing MacDonald’s accomplishments so long as his crimes are not lost in all the acclaim. Remembering and recognizing discrimination for what it was acknowledges the struggles and abuse minorities endured under his hand and helps them feel accepted and respected.

Overlooking MacDonald’s crimes erases the true story history tells. It defeats the point of teaching and telling our history: to remember and learn from previous mistakes. John A. MacDonald’s legacy must be remembered for what it is—we would be wronging history to deny MacDonald’s great accomplishments, just as we would be erasing it by hiding his wrongdoings. Ultimately, this is not a matter of holding historical figures to the ideals of today, it is simply a matter of ensuring history is told properly.

[1] https://globalnews.ca/news/3691946/etfo-is-pushing-to-remove-sir-john-a-macdonalds-name-from-ontario-schools/

[2] http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/canadian-pacific-railway/

[3] http://nationalpost.com/news/canada/sure-john-a-macdonald-was-was-a-racist-colonizer-and-misogynist-but-so-were-most-canadians-back-then

 

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