More than 130 experts have issued a joint statement to defend the legacy of Canada’s first prime minister amid increasing calls for removal of monuments in his honour and attacks on his name in academia.
The statement, signed by historians, policy experts, and thought leaders, is a joint project of the Friends of Sir John A. Macdonald and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (MLI). The signatories urge governments, historians, teachers, media, and others to ensure Canadians have “access to a balanced view of our common past and the people who made us.”
“All Canadians deserve to hear the full story about Macdonald, the founding of Canada, and Canadian history generally,” the statement reads. “Only then can we form reasoned views about that historical record.”
Ryerson University professor Patrice Dutil, one of the organizers of the initiative, said what led to the effort was concerns about the continual attacks on Macdonald that ignored his contributions to Canada.
“The sustained attacks on monuments to Sir John A. Macdonald and the attacks on his good name in schools and at Queen’s University in 2020 prompted many of us to simply say: Enough!” Dutil said in an MLI news release.
“This effort, I hope, will become a turning point in how Canadian society examines Macdonald, and its past generally.”
Last August, a statue of Macdonald in downtown Montreal was torn off its pedestal by an activist group. In recent years, statues of Canada’s first prime minister have been a focal point of protest in various parts of the country, with some defaced by vandals or, in the case of Victoria, B.C., removed by the city in 2018 as a gesture of reconciliation.
In October 2020, Queen’s University announced that Macdonald’s name would be removed from its law school building.
A month later, the principal of Sir John A. Macdonald High School in Upper Tantallon, Nova Scotia, said the school would be renamed to reflect inclusivity, especially regarding indigenous students.
Macdonald was prime minister for 19 of Canada’s first 25 years, from 1867 to 1873 and from 1878 to 1891. Dutil noted that while Macdonald’s record is hardly without flaws, “his policy failures must be weighed against his phenomenal policy successes.”
The joint statement highlights Macdonald’s many accomplishments. For example, he led the original Confederation effort and united the scattered colonies of British North America into Canada; dissuaded aggressive American expansionism; acquired territory that made Canada the second-largest country in the world; and persuaded Manitoba, British Columbia, and Prince Edward Island to join Confederation. He also brought economic stability to Canada through a strategic Bank Act in 1871 and via a national economic policy.
Other achievements, according to the statement, include spearheading the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway; promoting freedom of expression and the press; and championing unity between French-Catholic-dominated Canada East (Quebec) and English-Protestant Canada West (Ontario). The latter was no mean feat given that the two sides were stuck in long-term political stalemate and mistrust plagued with sectarian and linguistic strife.
One of Macdonald’s failures was the establishment of the national policy on Indian Residential Schools, the signatories said. The policy mandated that every indigenous child be indoctrinated into the Euro-Canadian and Christian way of living and assimilated into mainstream Canadian society.
“Even though widely supported at the time, the schools had a dark legacy that hangs over the country to this day,” the statement says, adding that Macdonald made “many other mistakes” with respect to indigenous peoples and policies that “Canadians today strongly disapprove.”
“Macdonald’s failures must, however, be weighed against an impressive record of constitution and nation building; his reconciliation of contending cultures, languages, and religions; his progressivism; and his documented concern for and friendship with the indigenous peoples of Canada,” the signatories argue.
MLI managing director Brian Lee Crowley, also one of the signatories, said “it is easy to criticize the past and the decisions made there. But it is a conceit of each and every generation that it alone is free from poor judgments, intellectual shortcomings and historical myopia.”
“Macdonald was neither angel nor devil, but a fallible human being who accomplished great things. Looking solely at our past errors is not the right standard by which to measure Canada or Sir John A. and their great achievements,” Crowley said.
“Looking at our history with a dispassionate eye will give us a much clearer vision of the future. Let’s start with Sir John A. Macdonald,” the statement concludes.