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Unravelling the past | Bruce McDougall

Thursday, October 29, 2020 @ 9:49 AM | By Bruce McDougall

Bruce McDougall %>
Bruce McDougall
The decision in October by Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ont., to remove the name of Sir John A. Macdonald from its law school building seemed at first glance to be another example of political correctness gone mad. Yet another thread was being pulled unnecessarily from the fabric of Canada’s moth-eaten heritage. When would it end?

Earlier in the year, in response to a petition, the university formed a committee of 10 advisers. They spent two months in consultation with more than 3,000 people and then issued a 65-page report. All this to remove a name from a building.

If it takes this much thought and effort to change a name, I wondered, how much credibility can we give to the people who work and study inside the place?

Some of the people who contributed their thoughts to the advisory committee’s final report must have had similar reservations about the exercise.

“If perfection has become the new standard [that] social activists apply to governments, businesses, politicians, and institutions, then few in this mortal world will meet that standard,” said one.

“As I see it,” said another, “the renaming proposal is an effort to shame Canada by shaming its principal founder. How much humiliation must we endure to expiate the errors of past generations?”

“Are we going to investigate the history of every person that has a building with their name on it? Soon there is no history and we lose all the lessons of the past and only live in the present.”

Based on the timing of the decision, Queen’s seemed to have capitulated to the prevailing wind of generational sentiment. After all, more than a century has passed since Macdonald died in office, and no one since then has challenged his lofty place in the pantheon of Canadian politicians, despite the imposition of his disastrous policies on First Nations people.

Certainly no one raised the challenge when Queen’s opened its law school building in 1960. As a historian named Sean Carleton told the advisory committee, “At a time of French-English tensions and movements for Quebec separation, many people looked to the past for a unifying figure, someone important who brought French and English Canadians together, and Macdonald seemed an easy choice.”

The only challenge in 1960 to Macdonald’s name arose while the prime minister of the day, John Diefenbaker, was officially opening the building. Mischievous students erected a banner renaming it “Laurier Hall” and taped a large picture of Diefenbaker’s Liberal opposition leader, Lester Pearson, to the outside of a window.

In the 1960s, many Canadians would have chuckled at these pranks while accepting Macdonald as a suitably esteemed figure in Canada’s history to lend his name to a building. They would have agreed with the comment presented to the advisory committee that “the policies around residential schools and [Macdonald’s] treatment of minorities were consistent with attitudes held at the time. ... It is not fair to hold figures of the past to today’s societal standards. We cannot erase our country’s history because of actions that we are just now realizing were wrong.”

That would seem to settle the matter, except that it’s fundamentally untrue. Whether they lived in the 1960s or the 1890s, people have always had the opportunity to distinguish right from wrong. Even in the 19th century, some people recognized the vile unfairness of prevailing attitudes toward Canada’s First Nations. Those people arrived in this land with a sense of humility and curiosity. They accepted the hospitality of the residents who welcomed them, and they assimilated themselves in to First Nations cultures.

A few of them, like John Begg, wrote about their experience. But their words made only a faint impression on their fellow Canadians, who believed in their superiority over native people. Their voices never rose above the drum-banging, chest-beating and tub-thumping of the dominant political and cultural pooh-bahs who governed the country while violating treaties with First Nations, breaking promises, reneging on deals, going back on their collective word and trying their best to drive those nations into extinction.

As one commentator observed to the advisory committee, “Macdonald’s assimilationist policies toward Indigenous people were not inevitable. There was an alternate possibility ... characterized by two societies living in peace and mutual respect. The breaking of treaties was one part of the means Sir John A. Macdonald’s government used to create Canada, to acquire the land it saw as necessary for westward expansion.”

Seen in this light, perhaps it’s high time that we question the stature of Sir John A. Macdonald. Rather than defending the status quo we should wonder why it has taken so long to acknowledge Macdonald’s complicity in the ethnic cleansing of Canada’s First Nations. We should ask ourselves why we did not hear for so long the voices of his victims. And we should wonder whose suffering we are ignoring now because we can’t be bothered to listen.

“John A. Macdonald is the reason many of my ancestors, including my grandmother, attended residential school,” said one commentator to the advisory committee. “Having to know that my school supports and celebrates the violent colonial actions by naming buildings after him is a true show that my fear is justified.”

“Being in the building named after the figure who represents that wrong to many Indigenous and non-Indigenous people,” said another, “seeing his name elevated and commemorated, is not only triggering of the trauma but sends the message that the university does not care about the harmful experience of the people traumatized by it.”

“We, in the present, will be taking an action that celebrates and elevates a man who, because of his leadership role at the time in question, although a symbol of national pride for many, also stands for the abhorrent policies which have so seriously harmed a significant segment of our society since that time. If we take that action — leaving the name on the building — we will be reperpetuating that harm. We must therefore take the other action available to us, namely, to remove the name.”

In this context, the removal of Macdonald’s name from a building is more than a fatuous exercise in virtue signalling.

But why stop at a building? Why not keep tugging on these threads to expose, unravel and remove all the tattered reminders of the double-dealing, bigotry, rot and corruption that inform this country’s history?

Now that we’ve removed a name from a building, maybe we should consider reimagining an entire nation where everyone has an equal opportunity to excel. Even today, more than a century after the death of one dubious and narrow-minded lawyer and prime minister, we still can’t make that claim for Canada.

As another of the 3,000 commentators told the advisory committee, “A decision to change the name of the law school building is a first and vital step toward decolonization, and it will lead ... toward a vision of Canada that acknowledges both its roots and its potential to be a place in which all of its peoples can thrive.”

Bruce McDougall ( has written for The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s and other Canadian news magazines. He is the author of The Last Hockey Game and Every Minute Is a Suicide. A graduate of Harvard College, he attended the University of Toronto Law School.

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