Experts say debate about Sir John A.’s place in history is a good thing for Canada

Martin Julien plays Sir John A. Macdonald in Drew Hayden Taylor's play at the National Arts Centre. Photo: Andrew Akexander

By Floriane Bonneville

The place and legacy of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald has been the subject of much renewed debate since the 200th anniversary of his birth in 2015.

This summer an Ontario teachers’ union stirred up a noisy controversy by suggesting his name be taken off schools across the province, because of his role in the creation of residential schools.

The uproar even prompted Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to defend the name of his Tory predecessor and say “there are no plans by the federal government to (take) the name John A. Macdonald off of anything in our responsibility.” The first PM’s name is everywhere in the capital, on roads, the international airport and buildings.

MacDonald has been called the “corrupt, inebriated, racist father of Canada” by one writer and hailed as belonging in the “pantheon of great nation-builders” by another.

And his many contradictions are being examined by artists. A play by the well-known Indigenous playwright Drew Hayden Taylor titled Sir John A. Macdonald: Acts of a Gentrified Ojibway Rebellion, is currently playing at the NAC. In early November, a musical on Macdonald will be at Centrepointe Theatre.

Taylor’s comedy does insert itself into the debate over Macdonald’s place in Canada’s history. But instead of slamming the man, the playwright says he is trying to contextualize him while keeping a critical perspective.

As he told ARTSFILE’s Patrick Langston he believes few people wake up in the morning saying: “I will do evil things today. … It’s a mistake to eliminate bad people from history, from public consciousness because you lose what people did and why and how it’s affecting us. But there still needs to be a certain amount of context.”

This makes sense to Chad Gaffield.

“Debates about how societies remember the past are always valuable, if sometimes difficult.” the  University of Ottawa history professor said in an interview. The value about debates over history  “includes helping us get perspective on issues today by coming to grips with how people faced related issues in the past.”

Gaffield says he believes that societies should never try to erase anything included in the historical record.

For Hayden King “the process that we’re in right now is a sort of a push and a pull on what is our common narrative as people that share this territory and there’s just disagreement over it and the resulting debate is just natural to that conflict.”

The Carleton University School of Public Policy professor says if Canadian society wants to see change in the relationship with Indigenous peoples it will require discomfort and sacrifice. King, who is a member of the Ojibway nation, says he believes Canadians will have to grapple with the “myths and narratives that they’ve been told that were true since they came up to the education system from childhood to adulthood,” which include the perception of John A. Macdonald. 

Earlier this year, Senator Murray Sinclair said renaming institutions whose names are offensive to Indigenous people is “counterproductive” because it does not bring balance. Rather, he said, people should  honour Indigenous heroes.

King says he believes both should be done.

“By not discussing critically people like Sir John A. Macdonald or any of these other historical figures that have now been questioned we don’t do the important truth telling that Murray Sinclair himself advocated so passionately for throughout the TRC process.

“If we want to name schools after Pontiac, or Tecumseh, or Mary Simon, or whoever, I mean, I think  that we can do that too.”

Many see similarities with the debate in the U.S. over the taking down of Robert E. Lee’s statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. Galen Perras, also a history professor at uOttawa, says the two issues are not the same. Perras says statues and buildings named for Macdonald were not made to display white power.

“Most of those Confederate statues were erected in the 1920’s and then the 1950’s-60’s when the (Ku Klux) Klan revived and civil rights emerged to be deliberate reminders of white power,”  Perras said.

This story was produced in collaboration with the Carleton University journalism program and Centretown News.

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