Because of a statue in Victoria, the controversy over John A. Macdonald, first Prime Minister of Canada, is back in the news again. Living in Ottawa, of course, Macdonald is unavoidable; I drive to work most days on a parkway bearing his name, and it has been somewhat of a tradition for me to eat my post-race breakfast in a pub named after him each fall. When I was in high school, my history teacher made a character out of Macdonald, told us funny stories about him, and I left for university thinking of him as an appropriate figure for the first Canadian Prime Minister: an ambitious politician, sure, but also a cantankerous Scot with rather too much fondness for the booze.
I hadn’t learned about the residential schools, then, and Louis Riel was simply framed as ‘traitor’; our strange little Canadian moment of rebellion, come and gone, shorn of wider meanings. I retold those funny stories, many times, to people who asked me about Canada. I got laughs in the pub, reinforced my own impression of Canadian history as a more or less whimsical tale about a basically harmless country. I would not tell those stories now, and I’m glad I went on learning.
Since then, Macdonald has been reassessed, in divergent ways. In relatively recent years (it seems to me, although I am not an expert on Canadian historiography) he’s been given a boost, from certain quarters, to promote his role as father of the nation and make him our equivalent to Washington (who, of course, also has a lot that lies beneath the national myth). The name everyone knows, the ubiquitous figure who we credit with bringing the place we call home into being. It was such efforts that got his name on that parkway I drive on, which was simply the Ottawa River Parkway until 2012. A certain kind of national pride, or nationalism, demands heroes, and so Macdonald was built up.
Gradually, I have learned more about the varied parts of his legacy (both in and out of classrooms), and I (like, I imagine, many Canadians) have come to see him as hitting quite wide of the mark of heroism. It’s fair to say that our first Prime Minister’s greatest flaw was not hitting the bottle a bit much, it was that he was a racist. I would never deny his influence and importance in the Canadian story (you’d have to be wilfully dishonest to do so), but he’s no hero of mine. As more and more voices have insisted on telling this part of the story, so has come the pressure to take those statues down.
It’s interesting (as I read on the CBC) that Scotland is also reconsidering Macdonald, removing references to him from government websites. Like the removal of the statues, no doubt this has raised at least a few cries of ‘erasure’, although quieter than here; Macdonald is far from as big a deal to the Scots as he is to Canada. As Nahlah Ayed reminded me in the article, there isn’t even a problematic statue of Macdonald in Edinburgh to worry about taking down. (And honestly, such is my national inferiority complex that when I was there this summer, it didn’t even occur to me that there would be.)
Erasure is something that I think any historian, or lover of history, must surely oppose. Pretending that things that happened, never did, or that people who existed, never did, is always harmful. That is how we come to believe in lies, and that is how we fail to learn anything useful from our history. We need to remember and study every part of it, even (and maybe especially) the parts we find distasteful. Failures, missteps, bad ideas, need to be examined so that we can understand how they came to pass, and we must reach those conclusions honestly. If you ask me, I will never be in favour of tearing out one single page from the book of our history. I might, however, be very much in favour of writing that page over again.
The Scottish government, as it happens, says the articles have been taken down to be rewritten, as Macdonald’s legacy is reassessed. It’s not a failure to reassess and reconsider what we think about our past and the people who came before us. That is probably the one thing that will never change about history: that we keep changing how we see it, how we tell that story. Heck, that’s part of why historians continue to work, because the stories have worn out, need patching, darning, and retelling.
I’m not a Canadian history expert – far from it – but it’s clear that Macdonald did and does need to be reassessed, his story rewritten. He was not just the (fairly nakedly ambitious) ‘Father of Confederation’, he was also among the architects of the brutal system of residential schools through which cultural genocide was practiced upon the First Nations people who came under Canadian authority. To tell his story otherwise, dishonest. A carefully upholstered national myth that presumably offers comfort to some even as it ignores the suffering of others, and the historian’s first duty: the truth. So, reassess Macdonald, tell the truth about him unapologetically and clearly.
But, what about those statues. Is removing a statue an act of erasure? Would renaming that parkway I drive on be one? This is a debate that widens out beyond Macdonald: the Canadian government recently took the name ‘Langevin’ off of one of our Parliamentary buildings, due to Hector Louis-Langevin’s own involvement with residential schools. And, of course, there is the ongoing controversy to the south about Confederate monuments, about which I wrote about on the blog a while back. To take these plaques and statues and titles away, is that erasure?
Of course it is not. We do not learn history, or should not learn history, based on what monuments are up in the world around us. Monuments are erected, most of the time, to figures who were in a particular moment considered ‘great’, but history must not be only the story of the great. It must be the story of the ordinary and the unregarded just as much if it is really to inform us about the people who lived before we did, and what that means for us. History will ever be the story of protagonists, surely, because it seems we cannot resist a good tale and most tales work best with a hero, or a heroine, but it must have its fools and villains just as much, and we need to hear about them just as clearly as we do the people who we decide to put up a statue for.
A statue, a monument, in the symbolism we operate under, says ‘this is a thing we take pride in. Yes, even war memorials, because we take pride in the courage and the sacrifice of those people in defense of country and ideology. So, to have a statue of Macdonald is not simply to say ‘there was a man named John A. Macdonald’, it is to say ‘this man, we admire’. (In a museum, where we might feasibly present a nuanced picture of a person, along with an image in bronze, the situation is rather different, and perhaps that is the compromise) It is surely not so great a leap of imagination to consider how that feels to people whose family suffered in a residential school, who do not know the language of their people because of policies that sought its eradication, who grew up in poverty and peril because that was all the government left them.
Macdonald cannot be erased from Canadian history, but we do not need to declare, publicly and loudly, that he is among our heroes. He should not be, if we mean any part of the ‘Canadian identity’ we are so bold to declare. Students of Canadian history, and Canadians in general, should of course still learn about John A. Macdonald. It would be lunacy not to. However, they should learn about who he really was and especially what he really did, not some imagined and carefully tailored figure we create because we want our own Washington (although, again) a benevolent or heroic ‘father’ to the nation.
It’s not a question of ‘feeling guilty’, either; no-one wants more empty gestures and I don’t think it’s fair to say that Canadians today are culpable for what Macdonald and people like him did. But. Recognizing the truth about the birth of the country in which we live, how those policies and decisions played out down the years for generations of people, and how they continue to affect the very real conditions that people live in and grapple with today, is very important. Canada, whatever else is true about it, was forged from great injustices done to the people who already lived here before Europeans rolled in. There is no chance of really reconciling with their descendants and creating a right and just solution to that central problem if we cannot even recognize that the problem exists.
Part of that recognition is, yes, admitting that John A. Macdonald was not a great guy. We need very much to have a conversation about that, about what it means and what we should probably do about it. Pretending Macdonald didn’t exist is not (or should not) be the aim. Coming to grips with what he really meant must be.
The statues should come down. We could find a better name for that parkway.
And we must remember, all of it.