Dr. Celeste Pedri-Spade is an associate professor and Queen’s National Scholar in Indigenous Studies at Queen’s University.
This summer, I relocated to Katarokwi (Kingston, Ont.) with my family after accepting a faculty position at Queen’s University. I am an Anishinabekwe from Lac des Mille Lacs First Nation, a small Anishinabe community located in northwestern Ontario. My husband is also Anishinabe, and we have been gifted with the responsibility of raising four beautiful children together. We work hard as a family to ensure that our children learn and practise their cultural teachings. We work equally hard to help them understand how their older relatives and ancestors were persecuted for living the way we, as a family, live today. So I wasn’t surprised that when we moved to Kingston, it was immediately obvious to my children that this is Sir John A. Macdonald’s hometown.
My eight-year-old son recently asked me why people in this city have so many roads, buildings and statues to honour a man who did bad things to our ancestors. He asked me why I was going to work at a place that had a building named after this man. As we drove by the Collins Bay correctional facility one day, he asked me whether an Indian Residential School remained open here.
This week, after an extensive process of consultation involving many stakeholders, the Queen’s University board decided to remove Macdonald’s name from its law school building. Leading up to this decision, there have been several public opinion pieces stating that Queen’s is another university casualty of the “cancel culture” revolution plaguing our society. Opponents to the removal of Macdonald monuments also draw on the past to craft narratives that attempt to legitimize and normalize the actions of this early settler colonial leader, absolving him – and by extension those who benefit from the system he upheld – from taking any kind of responsibility or accountability. There is a wealth of scholarship that addresses this. It is well established that Macdonald was not a victim of a particular time and circumstance. He is responsible for many atrocities including horrendous acts committed against Indigenous children and the largest mass execution of Indigenous leaders in Canada.
History, whether it exists as a text written in book or as a name on a building, is never a totally objective, neutral, “accurate” representation of the past. History is produced by living, breathing people. It is a cultural product. Collectively, people make choices around what we should remember, why, how and for what purpose. Things such as positionality, lived experiences and specific cultural values inform these choices. Similarly, we experience history as embodied individuals and so it affects all parts of us. We don’t just see or listen to it. We feel it.
Taking down Macdonald monuments or renaming buildings is not an example of people or organizations trying to forget history or falling victim to a trend. Rather, it is evidence of a powerful cultural renaissance taking place within our communities – one that is motivated and driven by thoughtful citizens who are no longer happy being surrounded with material embodiments of people and stories that are traumatic and harmful to their families or their neighbours. It is an example of people who want a present and future that upholds and celebrates the importance of collective moral responsibility.
Universities are one of the most appropriate places for this cultural renaissance to take place, as they are essential pillars of our society that play a key role in elevating awareness of social responsibility among their community members.
Returning to my eight-year-old’s question: This week, I was able to answer that an overwhelming number of people at Queen’s have supported the work of making space for something beautiful to happen – for a new narrative to emerge that is more inclusive and respectful. While we all walk different paths in life, we are still connected through a wonderful thing called community.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.