This article originally appeared in the Windsor Star.
By Patrice Dutil, January 13, 2023
Against the will of Canadians, only two statues of Sir John A. Macdonald still stand, and his name is quietly being removed from school programs. The two monuments are under 24/7 police surveillance (one on Parliament Hill and the other at Queen’s Park in Toronto). Until a few years ago, there were ten. As the 208th birthday of Canada’s first prime minister was on Wednesday, it’s worth taking stock of the ways that were used to erase him from the country’s cityscapes.
The assault on Macdonald’s reputation was driven by people who argue that Macdonald committed genocide. In reality, no scholar has ever demonstrated “genocide” because no figures or proof of such intent could justify the term, but that has not stopped the nameless activists and the weak politicians who depend on them.
Even the Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, published in 2015, had remarkably little to say specifically about Macdonald. It pointed to his government’s 1883 legislation that created Indian Residential Schools, but it also acknowledged that under his government, admission was fully voluntary. It also described the origins of using schools to assimilate Indigenous kids dating back to some of the earliest days of European settlement. Regardless, it left no doubt that the villain in the story was Macdonald.
The insinuations in late May 2021 that there were 215 unmarked graves near the Kamloops Residential School (located on the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation) had the most devastating impact on Macdonald’s reputation as it fed the narrative of “genocide.” No “hidden” graves have actually been identified, and none of those schools existed in Macdonald’s day. It was innuendo in full force.
Death by Mainstream Media
Most of the daily newspaper and broadcaster websites still feature stories about that “the remains of 215 children were found buried” at Kamloops or of other cemeteries near residential schools. They do not carry correctives and have been remarkably negligent in questioning extraordinary claims. The choice of words and the way the “revelations” of possible graves in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, were presented left no doubt that the villain was Macdonald.
Death by Starchamber
Mayors and city councils grew terrified to be associated with Sir John A. Macdonald. In Victoria, B.C., it was the mayor who led the charge in 2018 to remove the statue that had been erected in 1982. The general wave of statue busting that swept North America in the summer of 2020 claimed more Macdonalds. That June, the councillors of the Township of Wilmot removed the recently sculpted Macdonald statue that stood in front of township offices in Baden, Ont., near Kitchener.
In August, the monument to Macdonald and Sir George-Etienne Cartier that greeted arrivals to the Ottawa airport was also removed by the managers of the terminal and quietly hauled into storage.
In 2021, Kingston, the place Macdonald called home, the Mayor and city council had the statue taken down. Charlottetown, PEI — which long prospered on spinning the tale about the Charlottetown meeting of 1864 (that was given all its significance by Macdonald) — removed its statue of Macdonald. In none of the cases were hearings held or public debate on the question heard. The decisions were all made internally.
Perhaps the most tragic case was the one in Picton, Ontario. After years of fundraising and awareness-building, a citizens group had convinced the town in 2015 to place a new monument to honour the site of Macdonald’s first court case. Five years later, it was placed in storage. At one point, the council of Prince Edward County voted to reinstate the statue, and then proposed to place it in a museum. The pro-Macdonald activists consider the compromises to be insulting and have so far refused the offer.
Death by Principal
In the summer of 2017, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario adopted a resolution to urge school boards to remove Macdonald’s name from schools. Now, across Canada, four schools formerly bearing the name of Sir John A. Macdonald have changed their identities.
The first to move was actually in Nova Scotia. In April 2021, Sir John A. Macdonald High School in Upper Tartallon changed its name to Bay View High School. A year later, a Brampton, Ont., elementary school changed its name from Sir John A. Macdonald to Nibi Emosaawdang and in Pickering, it was decided that Sir John A. Macdonald Public School will be replaced with Biidassige Mandamin. Waterloo Region re-named its Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary School, the area’s largest, to Laurel Heights. In all cases, the initiatives were led by the school principals, not by calls from the community.
Death by Vandalism
In August 2020, following a rally to defund the police, demonstrators in Montreal pulled to the ground the massive 126-year-old statue of Macdonald from its high pedestal. The police simply watched the act of public vandalism and then moved in. A first report from the City of Montreal advocated in November 2022 that the statue not be reinstated. The vandals are winning.
The Macdonald monument that stands in Gore Park in downtown Hamilton had also been vandalized many times, but the city council has steadfastly chosen to support it. In July 2021, council voted 12-3 to keep the monument where it has been standing since 1893. In August 2021, the statue was toppled during an Indigenous Freedom Rally. It is unclear what the new municipal government will do.
Death by a Thousand Cuts
The hack can come in a swift blow, but the thousand little excisions in school programs across the country have been just as effective. The teaching of Canadian history is generally starving and Sir John A. Macdonald has essentially been cut from the curriculum diet. Students are often in Grade 7 (and 12 or 13 years old) when they encounter Macdonald for the first and only time in their school years. Who is to blame for this intellectual poverty? Look no further than the premiers, from left to right, who never say a word about the history curriculum.
This is not a trivial change in the political culture. Sir John A. Macdonald is probably the only Canadian who is recognized across the country because his accomplishments were so grand. Beyond his remarkable efforts to create a consensus around the idea of Confederation, he oversaw the linking of territories to the West and the incorporation of British Columbia and Prince Edward Island into the project of Canada. He was not a tyrant: he was elected a member of Parliament six times and led government for almost 20 years. Most of the time, his party won close to half the vote of Canadians. He offered to give the vote to women, gave it to Indigenous men who met the qualifications white men were subjected to, and increased the number of voters by 40 per cent.
That popularity has understandably been dulled by time and by the fact that Macdonald has not been taught in school. Yet a Léger public survey conducted for Postmedia in the winter of 2022 showed that support for the first prime minister was surprisingly high (except among young adults) and that respondents were categorically opposed to seeing his name removed from public spaces.
Most of the statues were paid for by donations from the community and unveiled before crowds that were numbered in the thousands, not tax dollars. In contrast, Macdonald’s erasure from the public eye in the 21st century were carried out by whispers, closed meetings and acts of vandalism. Decisions made by elected officials in offices that typically attract little attention will erode faith and trust in those institutions as the governing class seems intent on undermining the sense of belonging of most Canadians. The ghost of Macdonald may haunt politics for much longer, in a way neither he nor most people would want.
Patrice Dutil is Professor of Politics and Public Administration at Toronto Metropolitan University (Ryerson) and a Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. This article is based on work he did for the Association of Canadian Studies.