Amidst controversy over the cultural value of Confederate figures ranging from foot soldiers to Robert. E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, many have raised the question of precedent. Debate surrounding the moral complexity which comes with any conversation involving the Civil War is one thing. However, many believe that those behind proposals to topple Confederate monuments will not stop there.
Jefferson, Madison, and even George Washington will be the next historical figures labeled as racist for owning slaves, a common practice among wealthy farmers of the era. Their names and monuments will too be cited for removal. While such fears of historical white-washing have not yet been fully realized in America, an elementary school union in one of Canada’s most important provinces has delivered the first strike against their own founding father, John A. Macdonald.
The importance of John A. Macdonald within Canadian history is not refuted. As the nation’s first Prime Minister, Macdonald is credited by most for establishing the nation as we now know it, originally referred to as the Dominion of Canada. As a master of persuasion and negotiation, he is considered the man most responsible for bringing in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, as well as uniting upper and lower Canada, to form the original iteration of the nation of Canada. Subsequently, Macdonald would also oversee the adoption of British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, and the great Northwest Territories into the Canadian Federation.
His immense laundry-list of accomplishments does not stop with the formation of Canada’s vast territories into one united nation, however. His time as PM included oversight of the Trans-Canadian railroad, which united the nation’s provinces and allowed for further unification of the Canadian people, not to mention one hell of a scenic, cross-nation tour. He is also credited with helping establish the tight-knit relationship between the United States and Canada which would persist indefinitely. He is also thought by many to have handled the delicate balance of French and English interests in Canada quite deftly.
He is, by all accounts, Canada’s foremost founding father. Yet, the Ontario elementary school district wants his name stripped from its schools. According to these schools, Macdonald’s treatment of indigenous peoples– treatment common to virtually every founding leader in Western nations previously inhabited by another people– is justification to label him a destructive figure unworthy of a school’s namesake.
One cannot be surprised at this development considering the vein of modern controversy. The liberalism that has become the status quo in Canadian politics, ramped up since the election of Justin Trudeau, lends itself to the national outrage over supposedly oppressive white males. Macdonald is a seminal Canadian figure whose legacy is one of national and cultural unity, but even he is not immune to the absurdly critical eye of the modern liberal.
Inevitable resistance to this simplistic view of Macdonald, and the proposed ‘solution’ of removing his name from Canada’s elementary schools, must be continued. The implications of such a proposal are not limited to Canada, just as the trend of questioning the value of historical monuments was not confined to the States.
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario first proposed the removal of Macdonald’s name in an August 14th meeting. In more detail, their request read:
‘It asks school districts across the province to drop Macdonald’s name from schools and buildings “to recognize his central role as an architect of genocide against Indigenous peoples, the impact that this has had on the relationship between Indigenous students and non-Indigenous students, parents, educators, and the ways in which his namesake buildings can contribute to an unsafe space to learn and to work.”’
The use of the term ‘genocide’ in relation to John A. Macdonald is grossly irresponsible. But, as has become common, the use of hyperbolic and unfitting language must not get in the way of a solid, outrageous narrative. What genocide, in this context, refers to is this:
‘In Macdonald’s case, he said this includes the creation of residential schools and other policies of control and assimilation under the Indian Act — including restrictions on movement and voting rights that lasted until the 1950s and 1960s — that he considers “genocide of a people.”’
Ultimately, Macdonald wanted natives to assimilate into the prevailing Canadian culture, far more gentle a wish than many more bellicose leaders harbored toward native people. To deny that Indigenous peoples living in Canada, and the primarily white people who came to inhabit Canada, had vastly differing cultures is to be completely ignorant of history. In most cases, indigenous people showed a resistance toward assimilation, and enacting laws aimed at somewhat forced assimilation was seen as a reasonable solution by Macdonald.
The law was misguided in some respects, and has come under fire and been amended in the cases of its abuses, but applying modern social mores and context to a law introduced in 1876 is foolish, to say the least. It is also undeniably unfair to paint a picture of Macdonald which revolves primarily around the Indian Act, a minor aspect of the man’s overwhelmingly positive legacy. The use of the term “genocide” in relation to Macdonald is disingenuous, malevolent, and a non-starter when it comes to sincere ‘debate.'
Whether Macdonald’s name is ultimately removed from elementary schools in Ontario is telling, but potentially insignificant. It is the grander implications of this proposal which carry the greatest weight. A group of Canadians– teachers, no less– have displayed gross ignorance in labeling Canada’s founding father a man who oversaw a ‘genocide.' That alone is reason to be concerned about what is being taught in Canadian schools.
But the willingness to throw the term around so wantonly, so publicly, as the premise for a proposal to remove Macdonald’s widely-revered name from schools displays a seriousness and boldness to this misguided belief which furthers an ugly precedent. This precedent will undoubtedly be followed by similarly emboldened groups in America who, time will prove, believe that the slave-owning status of Washington, Jefferson, and other Founding Fathers are the only criteria upon which the men’s legacies should be judged.
Macdonald was a man whose personal struggles would be inconceivable to the Canadians now casting shame upon his name. Macdonald’s son died suddenly as a baby. After raising a daughter who was born with an unstoppable swelling of the brain which caused irreversible damage, he could only watch as his wife slowly deteriorated over a decade, eventually dying from an insidious illness. Amidst the personal turmoil, he maintained a temperament conducive to national unity, staving off what would have been understandable bitterness.
The picture of this man cannot be boiled down to one issue. And, even if one desires to judge Macdonald upon his treatment of indigenous peoples, they must not report the facts irresponsibly. They must not cast judgment by the standards of 2017, they must apply comparisons from 1876, as it is only fair.
But they won’t, as fairness and sincerity are not the names of the outrage game. True lovers of the Western world can only hope that the Ontario Teachers Union fails in their endgame as miserably as they did in presenting an honest portrayal of a man far greater than they will ever collectively be. Because the sentiments of the Ontario union exist in America, though they remain dormant for now. It is only a matter of time before calls to strip the names of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson from American elementary schools become as official, and as imminent, as the ones in Ontario.