OTTAWA — The name of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, is ubiquitous in the country’s capital. Ottawa’s airport, a major bridge, a parkway along the Ottawa River and several government buildings are all named for him. He’s also in most Canadian wallets: Macdonald’s portrait is on the $10 bill.
But in an echo of the American debate over memorials to Confederate leaders, there’s a movement afoot to strip Macdonald’s name from the structures that honor him, starting with schools in the province of Ontario. The reason? The long-dead leader is accused of harboring racist views toward Canada’s native people.
This month, the union representing primary-school teachers in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, passed a resolution that supports renaming all Ontario schools honoring Macdonald, calling him “the architect of genocide against Indigenous peoples.”
The resolution, backed by the head of Canada’s largest indigenous group, the Assembly of First Nations, has provoked a massive backlash from historians, politicians and members of the public. John Baird, a former Canadian foreign minister, called the idea “political correctness on steroids.” The Globe and Mail newspaper called the renaming “an absurd idea - insulting to our history, and to the intelligence of Canadians.”
Sir John A., as he’s affectionately known, was the driving force behind Canadian Confederation, in which Britain’s North American possessions were banded together in the 1860s into the forerunner of modern Canada. The hard-drinking, Scottish-born lawyer is credited with bringing the fractious group of feuding colonies, divided by religion, language and ethnicity, together to form a united country. He was elected prime minister six times and served for almost 19 years until his death in 1891.
But Macdonald was also a proponent of the now-reviled system of residential schools for Canada’s indigenous people, which forced children from their homes and placed them in schools far away. Abuse was rife in the schools, some of which existed until the 1990s. The Canadian government has set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission over the past decade to document the schools’ unfortunate legacy and has paid out billions of dollars in restitution to survivors.
To back their allegations of racism, Macdonald’s critics cite a speech he gave to Canada’s House of Commons in 1883 in support of the residential school idea. “When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read or write,” Macdonald said.
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Perry Bellegarde, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says having schools named after Macdonald perpetuates such racist ideas. “How would you feel if you were a young First Nations person going to that school, knowing full well that Sir John A. Macdonald was one of the architects behind the residential school system?” Bellegarde asked the CBC.
The anti-Macdonald movement follows a decision in June by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to rename the Langevin Block, the building in Ottawa that houses Trudeau’s own office. The building honored Hector-Louis Langevin, a minister in Macdonald’s cabinet who is credited with creating the schools. In making the announcement, Trudeau said he was acknowledging the “deep pain” the Langevin name caused.
While that decision got some public support, the idea of stripping Macdonald from school buildings has provoked widespread anger and derision.
“Words escape me,” Patrice Dutil, a political historian at Toronto’s Ryerson University, told The Washington Post. “It’s fundamentally unfair to the man’s historical contribution.” Dutil said that Macdonald’s belief in the need to “civilize” indigenous peoples and have them join the mainstream of Canadian life was perfectly in line with Victorian ideals.
“The intentions of Macdonald were not murderous, and to use the term ‘genocide’ is particularly inappropriate,” he said.
Critics have also noted that the reasoning behind removing Macdonald’s name would apply to other Canadian prime ministers, too. Wilfrid Laurier, the country’s first French Canadian prime minister, opposed Chinese immigration; William Lyon Mackenzie King, who led Canada during World War II, helped keep the nation’s borders closed to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
For now, as Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom wrote Monday, Macdonald’s name appears safe: Ontario’s premier has indicated that she doesn’t intend to change any school names. “But I’d be surprised if any new government buildings were named after the first prime minister,” Walkom noted, before offering a sardonic suggestion. “In fact, it might be less controversial to avoid naming anything after anybody. At least until we find someone who will remain flawless for all time.”