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A sign displaying the name of the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway is pictured as vehicles pass in Ottawa on Jan. 19. The National Capital Commission is expected to announce the next step in its approach to rename the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

In the latest indignity visited upon the memory of Canada’s first prime minister, Ottawa’s National Capital Commission has announced plans to substitute an Indigenous name for what is now the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway.

Why does everyone pick on Sir John A. and not Sir Wilfrid?

Wilfrid Laurier, one of Canada’s most beloved prime ministers, expanded the residential-school system and suppressed a 1907 report that revealed the schools were cruel and unsafe. His interior minister, Clifford Sifton, dispossessed First Nations of their lands in order to promote settlement in the Prairies. His governments also blocked Black and Chinese immigrants from entering Canada.

But although Ryerson University has been renamed Toronto Metropolitan University on the grounds that Egerton Ryerson helped establish the residential-school system, Wilfrid Laurier University has no plans to change its name. Laurier streets across the nation remain untouched. Renaming Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier hotel is unthinkable.

Macdonald’s likeness has been banished from the 10-dollar bill, replaced by Viola Desmond. Laurier remains on the five.

Macdonald statues have been toppled or removed in Charlottetown, Montreal, Kingston, Hamilton, Regina, Victoria and elsewhere. But I can find no record of a Laurier statue being carted off to storage.

Tearing Indigenous children from their parents and forcing them to attend schools far from their communities, where they were subjected to disease, abuse and efforts at assimilation, and where some died, was an act of cultural genocide by our lights. But by the lights of both Macdonald and of Laurier – and, for that matter, of Robert Borden, Mackenzie King, R.B. Bennett, Louis St. Laurent, John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson – it was sound policy. And newspapers across the land, including this one, agreed.

King’s governments deserve particular scrutiny. Not only did his administration maintain the residential-schools system, the King government in 1923 enacted legislation banning Chinese immigration. The act was rescinded in 1947 but King continued to maintain that “large-scale immigration from the Orient would change the fundamental composition of the Canadian population.” He also turned away Jews fleeing Europe on the St. Louis; an estimated 254 of its passengers later died at the hands of the Nazis. And his government dispossessed more than 21,000 Japanese Canadians during the Second World War.

Pierre Trudeau’s government began phasing out residential schools. But that same government produced a white paper under Indian Affairs minister (and future prime minister) Jean Chrétien that would have eliminated special status for First Nations, converted reserves into private property and wound down treaty rights. The government retreated in the face of First Nations outrage.

Injustice toward Indigenous peoples long predated Confederation and continues to this day. The record of racism toward non-European immigrants is lengthy and sordid. What makes Macdonald more culpable than the rest?

The answer could be that, as the first prime minister and a Father of Confederation, Macdonald personifies Canada. In pulling down his statue, some people are not simply protesting the legacy of residential schools – they are pulling down the symbol of an oppressive, colonizing state.

In that sense, to pull down a Macdonald statue is to pull down the statue of every prime minister and every leader who contributed to oppression of Indigenous peoples. And given what they’ve been put through, who could blame them?

But Macdonald and a handful of others also gave us Canada. They crafted a dominion unique in its balance of powers between federal and provincial, English and French. Immigrants from Britain and Eastern Europe came here. Italians and Portuguese and Chinese and South Asians and Filipinos came here. Muslims and Jews came here. Refugees came here, the latest from Afghanistan and Ukraine.

Canada is far from perfect, but it is arguably the least imperfect country on Earth, if the embrace of diversity is your measure.

There are lots of John A. Macdonald things in Ottawa. Replacing one of them with an Indigenous name won’t hurt anyone. Reconciliation will take time and be hard, but we must reach for it.

Let’s be careful, though. Sir John A. is part of who we are, good and bad. Let’s talk to each other about that. Talking is always better than tearing down.