Sir John A. Macdonald: a morally unremarkable man

By the time I have finished this little essay of mine, the Twitter storm which is its occasion will have passed, and a new and equally useless storm will be underway. Only a fraction of people take notice of Twitter, and only a fraction of the fraction treat it as more than a frivolity. The chief utility of Twitter, as any self-aware user knows, is to pass some time as tiny bursts of whatnot stimulate your vision, like roman candles.

A recent vote of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario has put forward the motion to remove the name Sir John A. Macdonald from all public schools in Ontario. Needless to say the idea was met with horror and outrage on Twitter, as all such proposals are. There is however a swelling of the call for such undertakings, and from a broader segment of the population than would have been likely even a decade ago.

Here are the more common arguments I have found against the motion:

– The Slippery Slope, Erasure Argument: No one is safe once the principle of removing names of the objectionable takes hold; soon all names from the past will be erased and forgotten, and Canadian history will disappear
– The Presentist Argument: Of course Sir John A. Macdonald was a racist, etc., but only by the standards of the present. By the standards of his day he was unremarkable, everyone at that time being a racist, etc.
– The Balance of Good Argument: Sir John A. Macdonald is a founding father whose positive achievements outweigh whatever ill he may have done
– The Revisionist Argument: It is wrong to re-create history to suit the tastes of the moment.

It is worth noting that, with few exceptions, the arguments against retracting the name of Sir John A. Macdonald concede that he “bears responsibility for the Indian Act and for residential schools” and for associated views “that are repugnant by today’s standards” — these are John Ivison’s words, from the August 24, 2017 edition of the National Post. I say “worth noting” because only twenty years ago it was common to find defences of this very same Indian residential school system in the pages of the National Post and elsewhere. It would be a matter of small trouble to produce a dozen examples, but one will I think suffice:

March 21, 2001
Healthy skepticism
National Post
In the past five years, Canadians have been led to believe that church- and government-run Indian residential schools systematically stripped Indian children of their identities. In 1998, Jane Stewart, then the federal Indian Affairs minister, conferred the federal government’s official blessing on this view when she expressed “profound regret” over the fact that residential schools “separated many children from their families and communities and prevented them from speaking their own languages and from learning about their heritage and cultures.” Ms. Stewart was no doubt taking her cue from the 1996 report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which describes residential schools as inherently “abusive” institutions that continue to cast “a deep shadow over the lives of many Aboriginal people and communities.”
Statements of claim being churned out by law firms on behalf of Indian litigants similarly allege that residential schools tried to “kill the Indian in the child” and engaged in “organized cultural genocide.”
Challenging this view requires courage …

etc., etc.

The common opinion-editorial view of only twenty years ago—that surely these well-intentioned residential schools couldn’t have been all that bad—is not without its present advocates, but there is no doubting that opinion on this issue has shifted. Today even the most reactionary commentator (Conrad Black comes to mind) will as a rule clear his throat with a qualifying phrase such as “of course there were some bad apples” or “although it’s true that terrible crimes were committed” before launching a defence. Few writers are willing to take the position that the Indian residential school system was on balance a good idea, with respect both to intentions as well as to execution. What has brought about this change? Above all else it is the result of a vigorous and sustained campaign led by the people who knew these institutions from the inside and who in many cases left them broken and diminished. In the 1990s and early 2000s, when I was working at the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, the fear was not of the erasure of Canada’s history but rather of its restoration. Against this effort of abuse survivors, to restore the historical record, stood the government and church lawyers and a good deal of the media.

Some unpleasant truths follow from the preceding. The first is that there is no getting around the fact that history is forever being re-written, that (as Auden put it) the words of a dead man are modified in the guts of the living, and that “erasure” at one time or another is our universal fate. It is unlikely that a majority of Canadians know more about Sir John A. Macdonald than could be written on a Dentyne wrapper, and that even this small amount of knowledge would contain errors. No amount of statuary or school naming is likely going to help. Furthermore it is as easy to purge oneself entirely of inherited values and prejudices, and to apprehend the past in its purity, as it is to stare at the back of your own eyeballs. We celebrate heroic men and women of the past precisely because they did something exceptional: they defied the standards of their time (often suffering for it) and remained mostly unsullied of the gewgaw and falderal all around them.

We are living through a time when the very notion of objective truth is under obvious and stunning attack, but anyone who has studied the past knows that there is always some degree of war going on against truth, particularly against unpleasant and inconvenient truth. Thirty years ago I had bitter arguments with university professors over matters that would be uncontroversial today. Often the argument bogged down in banal human factors like aesthetic tastes. For example, I recall taking the position that Duncan Campbell Scott’s poetry should not be isolated from his work as a senior bureaucrat, a proposition that threatened to sully the enjoyment of his work. It is the case however that very few artists would come out of a thorough scrutiny of their lives with their reputation enhanced, and the same is true of politicians and editorialists and activists and of homo sapiens in general. The effort to suppress truth is often a rational effort, but in the interest of preventing dangerous lies to take root it ought to be resisted and repudiated.

The truth about Sir John A. Macdonald contains a good many unpleasant facts, but it happens that the facts are more unpleasant for some than they are for others. For some the unpleasantness of a history is abstract, and for others it is Uncle Roy, who never came home from the war. Or it is your mother, who got on a train in Łódź never to be seen again. Sir John A. Macdonald is not regarded, even by his defenders, as a man of the heroic mode, but he is regarded as an abstraction, and a powerful abstraction at that: he is “the father of Confederation,” the man who made Canada, and likely this is why the call to remove his name invoked the wrath that it did. He is bound up in an Anglo-Canadian nationalism which walks softly but carries a big hockey stick. I am tempted to say that no Indigenous person can feel in her bones what many Canadians feel about their symbols, but doubtless there are some who can. In any case, for a great many Indigenous people, Sir John A. Macdonald is a man who caused the suffering of our dead and living relatives, a man who described people not unlike us as barbarians and savages. Yes, by the standards of his day he was morally unremarkable, and that is precisely why we find him so hard to take.

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