The path to reconciliation is fraught with difficult rows to hoe—and in today’s hyper-partisan world of politics there is no shortage of those who would seek partisan advantage from large crevasses that remain strewn across the field.
Witness last week’s proclamation from the Elementary Teacher’s Federation of Ontario calling for the removal of the name of Sir John A. MacDonald from Ontario schools due to his demonstrably racist policies, which included, among others, the establishment of the residential school system and the genocide by neglect through starvation of the Indigenous population that were proving a challenge to the expansion of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Oddly, the union did not seem to dwell on Canada’s first prime minister’s blocking of Asiatic peoples on the grounds that they would dilute the Aryan character of the British Empire. Yellow is apparently not the colour of the month when it comes to grandstanding pronouncements.
Make no mistake, this announcement smacks of coldly calculated opportunism, and it worked.
Within moments former Conservative cabinet minister and Stephen Harper attack dog, the man under whose hand the Pearson presence was excised from Laurier House, was waxing purple on scurrilous attempts to erase history. Close in line followed the leader of the Progressive Conservative Official Opposition Patrick Brown along with a host of conservative politicians and pundits at every level of government.
Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne, while noting the decision to name schools lies with the purview of school boards, did not sidestep the issue, declaring that Mr. MacDonald is a significant part of Canadian history and the man largely credited with welding the nation of Canada together.
Among all of the arguments put forward in this debate is the specious and oft recurring theme that “he was a man of his times.” To understand just how offensively this might fall on the ears of an Indigenous survivor of his policies or their descendant, just substitute the word Jew where the Anishinaabe references appear—then check if you would support naming a school after such a person. So let us leave the “man of his times” argument at the door where we might also wish to check our white privilege. Most God-fearing Christians of even Sir John’s day would have balked at the starvation of a whole race of people for political expediency, just as most Germans would have drawn the line at the gas chamber, refusing to believe that such a monstrous policy was the order of the day.
The pragmatic decisions of dealing with the “questions” facing expedient national policy that were made safely in the closeted shadows “back in the day” tend to be monstrous when revealed in the full light of any day.
Sadly, it seems, no hero can withstand the scrutiny of the modern era and no partisan history is free of taint. Liberal icon Sir Wilfrid Laurier urged Eastern European “men in sheepskin coats” to settle the West, but did his level best to keep the Chinese out of Canada and William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s longest serving prime minister was a closet admirer of Adolph Hitler’s labour relations policies. Even the saintly NDP have to wear J.S. Woodsworth, whose 1909 book on immigration ‘Strangers Within Our Gates’ used race-based language that is total anathema to today’s NDP.
Indigenous MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette on CBC’s ‘The House’ suggested that we must come to accept that “everyone has warts.”
Instead of washing our history clean of those moments that we would rather forget, we should focus our efforts on education and a frank and open recognition of our historical shortcomings so that we might not repeat them and look toward building a better future for all of our children. This nation’s colonial past should be taught to students in our schools at all levels, warts and all.