The union representing teachers in Ontario's public elementary schools last week passed a resolution calling on the province to rename buildings bearing the name of that noted historical villain, Sir John A. Macdonald. It's an absurd idea – insulting to our history, and to the intelligence of Canadians. But given the temper of the times, you can expect many more such demands in the years to come.
There are cases and places when the people we honour, and the context in which we honour them, needs to be seriously reconsidered. Just look at the Southern United States, which is dotted with statues of the heroes of the Confederacy, men like Jefferson Davis, president of the slave-holding states that rebelled against the United States.
Davis was the founding father of a country whose cornerstone principle was that all men are not created equal, and that one race should remain perpetually in bondage, labouring in chains for the benefit of another race. That was what the Confederacy was about. Its entire purpose was the perpetuation of slavery; its government was established to uphold and maintain it. There is much to remember in all of this, but little to celebrate.
That's why anyone who asks why there are so many Jefferson Davis statues in the centre of so many town squares across the U.S. South is asking the right question. And that's why anyone calling for the removal of those statues, or at the least their transformation into historical exhibits rather than statements of civic pride and purpose, is making a perfectly reasonable request. The statues were erected, in many cases not until the 1950s and 60s, as explicit rejections of the civil rights movement, and as statements of support for the maintenance of state-sanctioned segregation and discrimination against black Americans.
The dead of the Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in American history, deserve to be honoured. Their graves and cemeteries, along with the many memorials to simple soldiers, need not be disturbed. But monuments that treat the leaders of the Confederacy as heroes make no sense. Men like Jefferson Davis tried to destroy the United States, and all that is best about the principles of equality at the heart of the American project.
Contrast that with Sir John A. Macdonald and the Fathers of Confederation. They created Canada. They laid the legal, constitutional and moral foundation of what is arguably the most successful, prosperous, fair and free society on the planet. Who among us – who among the greats of history – can say that they did as much good for the world? Very few.
This place where we are all lucky enough to live is a project they set in motion. They brought together multiple colonies and two deeply antagonist linguistic and religious groups, creating a roadmap for peaceful co-operation, co-existence and shared nationhood. The country that Sir John A. was instrumental in creating has not always been perfect, nor will it always be perfect in future. It would be unfair to hold any human institution to that standard. They were politicians, not gods.
But the story of Canada – the story we honour when we put the name of our first Prime Minister on a school or a civic building – is a story that contains far more good than bad, and far more success than failure. You would have to be willfully ignorant of the richness of our shared history to see it otherwise.
The country that came into existence in 1867 because of the statesmanship of the Fathers of Confederation has led to ever-increasing peace, order, good government, liberty and prosperity for those of us lucky enough to live here. As we have written before in this space, the history of Canada could easily have looked like that of Northern Ireland, marked by decades of ethnic strife and violence, attracting the world's attention for all the wrong reasons. That Canada did not end up that way is more than just an accident.
No, not all of the values and tendencies of Sir John A.'s day line up with those of today. (And 150 years from now, the same will be said of us.) A century and a half ago, women didn't have the vote. Indigenous Canadians were largely treated as obstacles to be surmounted, and there is much to remedy and apologize for on that score. The Metis were given a raw deal. The Canada of a century and a half ago was gung ho for more immigration, just as long as the immigrants were European. Our current Prime Minister will march in every Pride parade that invites him; our first Prime Minister lived in a world where such a thing did not exist. And we doubt he ever asked anyone which pronouns they preferred.
We cannot expect the past to have shared all of today's values; that would only be possible in a world in which there is neither change nor progress. But today's Canada did not fall from the sky this morning. It is not a tabula rasa. Our liberal, democratic, rule-of-law system, with constitutionalism and federalism and habits of negotiation and peaceful coexistence, is what the Fathers of Confederation established and reinforced.
Without the actions they took in the past, our present does not exist, and we have no future.
Putting Macdonald in the same box as Jefferson Davis – just more dead, white, male racists, right? – is the height of ignorance. One diminished human freedom and possibilities. The other created a country that does the opposite.
To see the founding of Canada wholly or primarily as an act of injustice and oppression, and the lead founder of Canada as a person whose name needs to be expunged, is to have read the story of this country while wearing blinders.