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A pedestrian walks past a sign for Queen's University in Kingston on Friday, Aug. 14, 2020.

Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press

Queen’s University will remove the name of Canada’s first prime minister from its law school building in response to public demands and a community consultation that found his legacy at odds with the image the school wants to project.

The law building at Queen’s will no longer be named for Sir John A. Macdonald, the man indispensable to Canadian Confederation but who is also tied to the legacy of residential schools and other policies that proved devastating to First Nations in Canada.

A new name for the building will be chosen according to a process to be laid out in the coming months, Queen’s said Monday.

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“This decision is grounded in the university’s present-day academic mission and commitment to honour the values of equity, diversity, and inclusivity and to ensure all students, faculty, and staff feel welcome within the Queen’s community,” principal Patrick Deane said in a statement. “It also supports our commitment to take action to address systemic racism and ensure every member of our community may enjoy the benefits of our institution equally.”

Macdonald’s name has become a symbolic flashpoint in recent years as proponents and critics have clashed over statues erected in his honour and buildings that bear his name.

In response to Monday’s announcement from the university, federal Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole tweeted, “Another victim of cancel culture.”

Kingston, where Queen’s University is located, was Macdonald’s home for many years and one of the seats from which he was elected to the House of Commons.

The decision to remove the name was approved by the Queen’s board of trustees on the recommendation of the principal. Over the past two months, an advisory committee had looked into the question of renaming the law building, a process set up over the summer in response to an online petition that asked for Macdonald’s name to be taken down.

In a letter to the board of trustees, Dr. Deane said he was persuaded by one point in particular laid out by law dean Mark Walters: whether keeping the name would be consistent with the values of the university community.

“The name on the building helps to define who we are and who we want to be. It is a question about us, not him,” the letter states.

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“Greater than our obligation to respect and understand the past is our obligation to seek truth, equity and justice in the present and future, and with a particular regard for those in our society who have been, or continue to be, denied those rights,” Dr. Deane wrote.

The university also emphasized the significance of its obligation to answer the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which examined Canada’s residential school legacy.

In a letter addressed to members of the law school community, Dr. Walters said the decision to revisit the building’s name has not been easy. The roughly 3,000 responses gathered by the committee looking into the matter were nearly equally divided, he said. He described it as a question on which reasonable people can disagree, a question on which his own thinking has evolved and a source of sleepless nights.

“I appreciate that this decision will be very troubling and even incomprehensible for some of you,” Dr. Walters wrote.

“I don’t need to tell you that Sir John A. Macdonald was the principal founder of the country we live in. He was responsible, together with a small number of others, for bringing French and English Canada together into a constitutional arrangement committed to unity and diversity as well as justice, democracy, and legality. This project of Canada was and remains a noble one. Indeed, it is a constitutional project that is, in many respects, the envy of the world,” he wrote.

In recent years Macdonald’s legacy has been more broadly debated and scrutinized by the public. Dr. Walters referred to a residential school policy that called for First Nations children to be separated from their families. He also mentioned immigration policies that discriminated against Chinese and other peoples.

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In a letter to the building committee, the Indigenous Law Students' Alliance wrote: “We cannot invite Indigenous students into our school and expect them to feel welcome while the building they are being welcomed into is named after a man who worked for years to destroy their communities and heritage.”

Dr. Walters said many submissions argued that it would be wrong to judge historical figures by contemporary moral standards. He concluded that the university can’t overlook the impact that Macdonald’s statements and actions still have today.

“My own view is that we have taken the step to de-name the building because of, not despite, Macdonald’s constitutional achievements,” he wrote.

“Removing Macdonald’s name from the law school building may be seen as one small way of honouring the underlying values that animate the constitution that Macdonald helped to frame.”

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