As many Bay of Quinte area residents know, Sir John A. Macdonald was no stranger to battles in the courts in life. Now, the noted barrister once again faces judgment, this time in the court of public opinion 127 years after his death — but one wonders what kind of trial he is to receive.
This weekend, Victoria, B.C. removed a long-standing statue of Canada’s first prime minister in the name of reconciliation. During the process, the city’s mayor, Lisa Helps made some curious statements. In one article, she stated “The whole purpose of removing the statue is that we can have a conversation with the community and with the nations about how to tell this complex story.” In another interview, Helps downplayed the importance of a broad consultation in removing the statue. “If we had done engagement with the larger community, the question would have been, ‘Do we keep the statue or do we remove the statue’ and that’s not the question we need to ask as a community.’” It sounds like Sir John has already been tried.
Some would say that’s fitting, given the way Macdonald painted all First Nations peoples as “savages,” and was a driving force behind the Indian Act which characterized Aboriginals like children and sought to assimilate them to the culture of the colonial settlers. Indeed, a sad legacy has developed from that legislation, including the dark history of residential schools across this country — many of which still operated long after Macdonald was gone.
That said, the fact the Act became legislation is proof that Macdonald was by no means the only person of his age who thought the way he did. Still, the country’s first prime minister did offer to extend the vote to Aboriginal peoples and he also made some of the first attempts to enfranchise women. Given his time, and compared to the brutal assimilation in the United States and other settlements, Macdonald may well have been considered a progressive in his time.
There’s also the little matter of the legacy of Canada that Macdonald and his peers have left behind. It’s easy to criticize their actions because this nation has grown into one that values liberties, including freedom of speech. It may be revisionist history, but without the formation of Canada’s constitution and the great Canadian Pacific Railway gamble, it’s quite possible this part of North America may have developed in a very different manner.
Judged by today’s standards, one wonders whether most of the people Canada’s cities and institutions are named after would have made the cut. It also could be debated, then, what history is truly worthy of celebration and whose lens will be used to decide.
It is difficult for those who haven’t directly endured the impacts of residential schools to gauge the pain caused by the mere likeness of Macdonald, but one can surmise those feelings must be part of the conversation and art that stirs that emotion is a far more effective catalyst for historical discussions than references wiped clean due to offence. That said, further discussion on the location and light in which statues are displayed would be warranted.
Paramount is an ability to offer context from the many diverse vantages that make up Canada and consider each historical figure’s pros, cons, and humanity. Inclusion of a wider spectrum of people who have impacted this country, including Aboriginals, should be a welcome step. Only through that open discussion and debate will Canadians be able to evaluate their history and decide how it should be reflected.