When a proposal was brought forward recently at Toronto city hall to change the name of Union Station to instead honour Sir John A. Macdonald, Historica Canada – the organization I chair – found itself in an unusual position. Many people assumed that we – with our mandate to promote Canadian history and citizenship values – would enthusiastically support the change. After all, it would be a timely gesture, as we approach the 200th anniversary of Sir John. A.’s birth in 2015 and the 150th anniversary in 2017 of the country he played a crucial role in building. Along with being a Father of Confederation, Sir John A. is deservedly remembered for his lead role in building a railway linking Canadians coast-to-coast. And we recently released two new episodes of our well-known Heritage Minutes – one featuring Sir John A., while the second included him as it focused on his friend and colleague Sir George-Etienne Cartier.
We appreciate those points, and applaud the interest in history that prompted supporters to bring forward this measure – even as we disagree with them.
Here is why we do so – alongside other reasons that are not relevant. The best case for leaving Union Station’s name alone is a positive one. The station and its predecessors were built at a time when railways represented the vanguard of technological innovation: they were, in a manner of speaking, “the internet of their day.” The name “Union” was given because the station was the meeting point for all rail coming into Toronto. From its early days in the mid-19th century – pre-Confederation – until the advent of the aviation age, Union Station was the heart and soul of a considerably smaller Toronto. The Royal York Hotel – once one of the pre-eminent hotels in the old, globe-spanning British Empire – was built on the basis of significant passenger traffic from the station. Both buildings dominated the city skyline in their day.
Over two world wars, tens of thousands of Canadians departed from and returned to Union Station. Torontonians of many generations have seen loved ones off from there – and, more happily, welcomed them home. Today, tens of thousands of commuters and long-distance travellers continue to use its services. It remains one of Toronto’s – and Canada’s – best-known and most-used buildings. It deserves to be known by the name it has always borne.
But some other opponents of the name change cite reasons with which we do not agree. That includes those who argue that Sir John A. should not be honoured because he was in disreputable in some undeniable way. He drank too much and sometimes behaved boorishly. He said things about Asian – particularly Chinese – and indigenous peoples that were offensive in any era and are downright unacceptable today.
Those actions and words in and of themselves are indefensible – but not sufficient reason to deny Sir John A. deserved appreciation of his achievements. As Richard Gwyn – Sir John A.’s biographer – has argued, Macdonald understood Canada’s indigenous peoples far better than most of his peers, and instituted a number of positive measures on their behalf. He introduced legislation in 1885 to allow Aboriginal people to vote without losing any of their particular rights under the Indian Act and related treaties. (He also pushed – unsuccessfully – to give women the right to vote, declaring that they had been “oppressed for centuries”.) And, as many historians have noted, if we judge historical figures on the basis of present-day attitudes and expectations, we will find very few people thus worthy.
More than anything else, Sir John A. led us to the country we have today, and deserves to be remembered accordingly. There are many ways to do that – but renaming Union Station, with its rich history, is not one of them. Canada is a country made up of great people and constituent parts. One of the best ways to acknowledge the past is to reflect on its impact on our lives today. That’s the case with the vibrant, living link between past and present that is Union Station – and that’s why we need to leave its name, and heritage, alone.
Stephen Smith is Chair of Historica Canada