J.D.M. Stewart is a Canadian history teacher and the author of Being Prime Minister.
These are perilous times to have been a monumental historical figure from the 19th century. The list of names of those under reconsideration is long and growing, with the country’s first prime minister, Sir John Alexander Macdonald, regularly at the top of it.
The latest disgrace to be inflicted upon Macdonald – a leader without whom the very existence of this country may be questioned – occurred on Saturday when protesters in Montreal disdainfully toppled a statue of our first prime minister. A debate quickly ensued around Macdonald and his legacy. In predictable fashion, there has been no middle ground.
That legacy is currently subject to the death of a thousand cuts. Just last month, Queen’s University – an institution from Macdonald’s own hometown – wrote to its community to ask for input on a consultation process about the name of Sir John A. Macdonald Hall on its Kingston campus. Et tu, Brute?
The continued targeting of Macdonald is really as much about our own times as his. But that has always been the case with history. As renowned University of Toronto historian Margaret MacMillan – a continuing voice of reason in our challenged times – once wrote: “We argue over history in part because it can have real significance in the present.”
Canada’s continuing work toward reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, as well as the systemic racism and violence in all its forms that has been a part of the lived experience of many Canadians, are the issues of our times. But defacing and vandalizing statues of a former prime minister is not going to advance any of those causes. Nor is it justified by history – although it may make some feel better.
“For those who do not have power or who feel they do not have enough,” Prof. MacMillan wrote in The Uses and Abuses of History, “history can be a way of protesting against their marginalization.”
The debate over statues in general, and of Macdonald in particular, also reveals the polarity of 2020 writ large. There are only extremes. In the place of dialogue and tolerance, there is more shouting at each other and less listening. This is not the Canadian way. Nor is tearing down a statue – which, by the way, is illegal.
Critics of Macdonald act as though his regrettable actions against Indigenous peoples in the West were happening now. But his policies, which we rightly chafe against today, took place primarily in the 1880s. “Quite unlike Canadians of today,” wrote the late Richard Gwyn in his two-volume biography of one of this country’s greatest prime ministers, “nineteenth-century Canadians felt no guilt about their country’s treatment of Indians.”
The real historical vandalism is not so much the destruction of public property, but in the singular and contemporary lens with which people are trying to judge actors from the past such as Macdonald. Unlike statues of Confederate “heroes” in the United States, which were raised in homage to the South’s support for slavery and to remind people of it, the statues of Macdonald were not put up in celebration of his genuine and ugly mistakes but for his larger legacy: his undeniable contribution to creating the Dominion of Canada.
It is ahistorical to take Macdonald out of his times and thrust our causes and our fights for justice onto him. “Macdonald has been unfairly abused for being a man of the 19th century,” University of Toronto historian Robert Bothwell told Maclean’s magazine in 2016. “He had moral failings, and was sometimes indifferent to or negligent of serious problems. He did not have our sensibilities, and had many of the characteristics of his period that at the time passed without comment because they were so widely held.”
So, where does that leave us in 2020 as these debates continue? For starters, let’s agree there are complexities to history and this issue – significant ones when you are evaluating someone who was prime minister from 1867 to 1891, save for four years from 1874-78.
Let’s continue to be sure we educate ourselves about not only historical legacies, but also about the nature of history itself. Let’s not cherry-pick the unsavoury parts, but rather add contextual plaques to statues that explain the many facets to readers.
The world is not black or white. And history is as grey as a late November sky.
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