When the Central Frontenac planning committee were putting their agenda for the year together they came up with the idea of a John A. Macdonald Ball in October, to celebrate the local heritage of the countries’ first prime minister. Macdonald invested in both Perth Road and the K&P railway, and a mural in Sharbot Lake marks the day his funeral train transferred to the K&P on its way from Ottawa to his home town of Kingston. It seemed anything but controversial when plans began taking shape a year ago. Suddenly late this summer Sir John A. has indeed become a controversial figure, at least as far as the Elementary School Teachers Association of Ontario is concerned.
At their annual meeting they called for his name to be removed from all school’s in Ontario, and at least one school board has responded by saying they will look into the matter. This comes in the wake of a heated debate in the United States over pulling down statues of confederate generals, that culminated in the President of the country saying he thinks George Washington will be the next target. If anything, John A. Macdonald is a bigger name in Canadian history than George Washington is in the US. He was a politician for almost 50 years, and was not only the founding Prime Minister, but served on two occasions, for a total of over 17 years until he died, while still in office. So, one way or another he was part of every major policy in the new country as it was just getting its bearings. And those policies were the foundation of 150 years of policies that, in concert with an economy that was and still is, to this day, based in large part on land ownership and exploitation of resources, cemented the devastation of Canada’s indigenous nations. The forces that led to such genocidal policies such as residential schools, the forced removal of children from their families on the basis of race in an attempt to eliminate the bonds of family, culture and language, did not spring from one man.
What happened had everything to do with efforts to make Canada a prosperous nation for the benefit of the merchant class. Canada was and is a land of opportunity, and everything about the First Nations was in the way, from the way people related to the land to the way they carried out commerce. Beyond that, Macdonald represents, in his actions and statements over the years, the concept of racial superiority that immigrants to Canada from northern Europe operated under. Not only were the first peoples in the way, they were considered inferior beings. We do not know how staunchly John A. Macdonald held to this sense of superiority, but as those who have spoken out in opposition to any attempts to sully his name in recent weeks, he was ‘a man of his times’. Further, it was Macdonald’s own intervention which lead to the hanging of Louis Riel, putting an end to any debate about sovereignty for First Nations at the time. Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations, on a national scale, have been like a balloon that has been punctured by indigenous activists who have identified how the founding of Canada is inherently connected with the systematic destruction of indigenous communities, with consequences that persist to this day and will remain with us for a long time to come.
To challenge the role of Sir John A. Maconald in all of this is certainly an oversimplification. His legacy extends beyond the picture on a $10 bill. But symbols do matter. Statues and names on buildings and institutions are symbols of the values our nation was built upon. It is certainly legitimate to consider the appropriateness of these symbols. John A. Macdonald would not have survived 50 years in politics, an any era, if he did not understand that politics is all about adapting to new realities all the time. Facing up to our collective past will not solve our current or future challenges, but it can put those challenges into context, revealing their deep roots and the amount of political resolve that will be necessary to for reconciliation in our fractured nation. Bringing John A. Macdonald’s name into it is certainly a provocative, unexpected, development, meant to provoke a reaction. If re-considering his legacy is part of a new nation-building exercise, it would certainly fit well with Sir John A.’s own life-long project.