John A. Macdonald: A hero or an oppressor?

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John A. Macdonald: A hero or an oppressor?

Photo via Elliot Ferguson/Postmedia Network - National Post

Photo via Elliot Ferguson/Postmedia Network - National Post

Photo via Elliot Ferguson/Postmedia Network - National Post

Photo via Elliot Ferguson/Postmedia Network - National Post

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At what point do we discredit history? Is history something that can be eliminated when we disagree with its values, or must we acknowledge and accept the darker stories of our past? These questions are at the heart of the debate surrounding the use of John A. Macdonald’s name for naming establishments, specifically schools. It is common practice to name buildings after key historical figures, and with John A. Macdonald being heralded as the founding father of our nation, his name is frequently utilized throughout Canada. After reading articles and statements from the two sides of the argument, I have come to believe that there is a limit to the amount of past cleansing we can do before we completely obliterate the creation of our nation. I also acknowledge, however, the conflicting views due to the negative associations with the name ‘John A. Macdonald.’ Moreover, we must ask ourselves what message his name is sending to young Canadian students.

History has taught us that with every triumph, mistakes, unfortunately, are made. Certainly, the majority of Canadians would agree that Macdonald’s dealings with Chinese immigration and Indigenous persons were not admirable, to say the least. But can we really argue that our nation would be as fruitful without those sacrifices made? No, we cannot; however, we also are not in the position to judge events that we were not present for. This is one of the most prevalent arguments in opposition to Macdonald’s name being torn away from schools. Our own Canadian history extraordinaire, Mr. Stewart, recently published an opinion piece in The Globe and Mail entitled “Don’t hold John A.Macdonald to 2017 values.” While studying history, he argues, we need to “be encouraged to be cautious about using contemporary values to judge the actions of historical figures.”

The concern with Mr. Stewart’s argument is the question of how we want to represent Canada. Do we want Chinese and Indigenous citizens to attend a school where the name of a former oppressor is found at center of the front entrance? Are we comfortable teaching children that Canada is a place of freedom and inclusion, with the exception of the name on the door that colonized your family? Or, do we want Canadian citizens to be proud of our country’s past,  to embrace its flaws, and to understand that history isn’t made without conflict and suffering? These are the questions that we need to be asking. The answer may not be as cut and dried as some make it out to be. There are many lenses one can use to observe and analyze history. The common perspective would be to shine Macdonald in a light of superiority, intelligence, and sheer victory. Looking at history from below would indicate that John A. Macdonald saw Canada as a nation that must assimilate those outside of the European ‘norm.’ Both these perspectives are valid, and are only a minute representation of the hundreds of perspectives Canadians can have. However, just as we cannot pass judgment towards historical happenings, we must also value and respect each person’s historical interpretations. For this debate, that means that one decision cannot be made for all schools who bear the name ‘John A Macdonald.’

So do I agree that John A. Macdonald was an incredibly influential figure in the birth of our nation? Yes. Do I think that his treatment towards Chinese immigrants and Indigenous Canadians was humane? Certainly not. However, I do believe that everyone has the right to personal historical interpretation. If a school is not comfortable with Macdonald’s name being associated with their place of learning, than it is in their rights to fight for its removal. The question of Macdonald’s contribution to Canada and morality is one that has, and will continue, to divide Canadians. We will continue to ask: What makes an influential figure? Is it their contributions or their faults?