Context and the Ethics of Memory: Re-asserting the Importance of John A Macdonald

By Andrew Nurse

In November 2020, Darlene Fitzgerald, Principal of John A. Macdonald High School in Upper Tantallon announced that the school would change its name. School principal, Darlene Fitzgerald called the decision a “no-brainer,” at least for her. According to Fitzgerald, “In recent years we have all become more aware of his legacy as the architect of Canada’s Indian Residential School System and the passage of the Indian Act in [1876]. These historic events have caused irreparable harm and trauma to generations of Indigenous People in Canada.” Inclusivity, she continued is part of her responsibility as an educator. “Every student that walks through the door should feel that they belong, like this is my school, and this is the spirit of going to school.”[1]

Severed head of John A. Macdonald. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Not everyone agrees. In Charlottetown, the fate of its statue of John A. Macdonald remains under consideration after Indigenous leaders asked the city to reconsider its decision to keep the statue with interpretive modifications after it failed to “meaningfully” consult First Peoples.[2] And, there are those who argue that there is something deeply wrong with campaigns to remove statues, thereby altering the character and nature of Canada’s commemorative public space. Who argue, in various ways, that those people seeking to rename schools and remove statues are fundamentally misguided.

History is inextricably linked to ethics. If this were not so, no one would be exercised about John A. Macdonald and the place his commemoration occupies in Canada’s historical landscape. No one would be trying to change school names and no one would be trying to defend his legacy or ensure some kind of popular perception of him as a “great” leader. The incidents in the Maritimes are part of on-going controversy over a variety of public commemorations, most notably John A. Macdonald who are architects of, or implicated in, the development, growth, and consolidation of colonialism in Canada.

I have been part of this discussion, some of which I find both odd and ahistorical. In this post, my aim is not reply to, reject, or refute those who seek to re-assert the greatness of John A. Macdonald because I don’t think that will advance either our understanding of the past or a consideration of how that past should be taught and marked. Instead, my goal is to explore the ethical positions articulated in discourses defending Macdonald and his place in history. In doing so I want to be guided by a particular question: what can historians contribute to debates about contemporary commemorative practices? By implication, I’ll suggest that they can contribute a lot and already have. More explicitly, I’ll suggest that the defense of Macdonald is sustained through a misapplication of historical methods that leads to intensely problematic ethical positions.

The argument for commemoration of Macdonald casts him as a “great” figure in Canadian history and has been laid out most extensively by scholars associated with the Macdonald-Laurier institute. It seems to rest on a number of inter-related points that include the following. First, implicating Macdonald in colonialism casts aspersions on Canada and detracts from what is, in reality, a positive national history defined by a progressively more inclusive society and polity. Connected to this argument is the contention that much of what Macdonald and his government did was good and thus, on balance, the good parts of his administration outweigh the bad. For this, we owe him, in the words of one of his defenders, “our gratitude.” Second there is something vindictive and retaliatory in criticism of Macdonald. This is, this discourse runs, not what is needed. In fact, focusing on the supposedly negative aspects of Canada’s past can only harm reconciliation. I’m not 100% certain about this because the wording is vague, but the implication here seems to be that pointing out Macdonald’s role in colonialism will somehow set back reconciliation and recognition of Indigenous rights in Canada because it will upset Canadians. Third, the critique of Macdonald is ahistorical. It is cast as a sort of moralistic post hoc “conceit” that neglects the fact that Macdonald’s views with regard to Indigenous people were broadly shared in Settler society and among other imperialist and colonialist societies. No one, in fact, believed any differently than did Macdonald (so this argument runs) and so to fault him is simply unfair.

What is wrong with this argument? Several things. Without trying to get into the weeds, my view is that it fails on a number of grounds. First, there appears to a significant disagreement not simply about Macdonald but about the purpose of historical research, writing, education, and commemoration. Macdonald’s defenders seem to be suggesting that the task of historical education is to canonize “great leaders” instructing our students and the public on their greatness. Greatness is, in fact, a leitmotif of Macdonald’s defenders. What is interesting is that this is not, in fact, what historians actually do. Different people can have different perspectives on any given historical figure, but historians focus their attention on a series of other questions. These questions look at the character and nature of historic processes and how they affected lived experience. In the case of post-Confederation Canada, the key processes at work relate, in some way, to the consolidation of colonialism. Here, historians are not asking “is Macdonald great” but: what factors led to the growth of colonialism? How was in enforced? What were its effects on Indigenous people? How did it affect Canadian demographics and economic growth? What we want our students to understand, among other things, is not the relative greatness of different political leaders but what led Canada to impose a genocidal colonial regime on Indigenous peoples, how that regime functioned, and its effects?

Is an exploration of colonialism casting aspersions at Canada? The long answer is that I suppose it depends on what one thinks about colonialism. The shorter answer might take the form of two questions: how might one propose to accurately teach post-Confederation history without discussing colonialism and its effects? And which narrative is more important and more meaningful for both an understanding of Canadian history and for our current context? Should we tell a story about the colonialism or about the greatness of Macdonald?

Second, I find the argument that concerns about Macdonald are simply a form of presentism that rips him from his context deeply disturbing. No one, this discourse, runs, thought differently than Macdonald did and so to impose some sort of special penalty on him is not right. He could not know what we now know and so he cannot be judged by our standards. This issue gets complicated fast but there two matters that strike me as essential to address. The first is that this discourse is empirically inaccurate. There were a great number of people who thought differently than Macdonald, who suggested different modes of political organization, and who promoted a different set of relations between Indigenous peoples and Settler society.[3] They just weren’t white. In effect, the defense of Macdonald erases First Nations and their resistance to colonialism from Canadian history as if it did not matter and as if they did not matter. I don’t believe this is intentional. I don’t think that those writing in support of Macdonald are seeking to erase Indigenous perspectives from history but the argument that they make about Macdonald’s context has that effect and I think, in this day and age, we need to ask: are we good with that? Is that the kind of history we seek to convey to our students? Would we encourage our students to discuss contexts in Canadian history as if First Peoples did not exist?

The equally troubling aspect of this argument is that it carries with it particularly disturbing implications if used as a way of thinking about history in general. Let me be clear about my point: context should not be used to exonerate. I am not saying we should make snap judgements, but I do think we need to recognize that the inextricable ethical and moral links to history are evident not just in Canadian history but in other histories as well. I have argued that for historians, context is a tool to understand past and its processes. Using it as a mechanism to explain away tragedy, violence, repression, and genocide leaves us with a bizarre form of relativism that can find no fault in the worst crimes. After all, the most brutal dictators of the modern age lived in a context that is different from ours. Is it a “conceit” to be deeply troubled by the horrors of their regimes or to condemn these regimes and their leaders?  The argument made by Macdonald’s defenders is more sophisticated than this. It sees in Macdonald’s critics some kind of “historical myopia” which, if I am reading this discourse correctly, creates a sense of presentist moral superiority. That might be true. I cannot – and should not – speak for all of Macdonald’s critics. What I can say is that believing that there are moral standards is something different than believing one is free of moral failings. The discourse of Macdonald’s defense seems to confuse the two.

What of the connection to Canada? Does finding fault with Macdonald somehow cast aspersions on Canada and endanger reconciliation with First Peoples? The argument seems rather odd because it appears to be suggesting that history should be presented in a way that is congenial to Settler society. Put differently, the defense of Macdonald breaks from claims to accuracy or morality. Instead, it seems to be saying that Canadians will only accept reconciliation with First Nations if the history of colonialism is explained away or downplayed and if at least some of its architects can still be treated as heroes. If this is the argument, I doubt it. My experience is that the more Canadians understand the scope of colonialism and the marginalization, repression, and mistreatment of First Peoples, the more they accept the idea that we need to break from that history and a narrative the lionizes its architects. In other words, the more Canadians know about history, the more they understand why the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was important, they more they feel that we need to reconsider how we teach history, the more they are willing to discuss what aspects of Canada’s past should be commemorated and how. To be sure, my students may leave my classes no longer thinking Macdonald is a hero, but they may not have really thought that when they came in the door. The interesting effect of this is that they tend to want to know more about the past; not less. And they are more generous to each other; not less.

Let me conclude on this note. I’m not trying to be synoptic. I’m not trying to write the last word on this subject. I doubt that’s possible. These views are my own. I’m not trying to speak for activists, elders, knowledge keepers or other academics, archivists and museum officials, among others. They have important perspectives to offer, and I think we should listen to them. Finding fault with colonialism is not, however, a form of presentism nor is it a moralistic conceit. If we can accept that, we can understand Macdonald’s symbolic importance for protestors and activists, elders and educators. At that point, we can have a better discussion of the past.


Andrew Nurse is Purdy Crawford Professor of Teaching and Learning at Mount Allison University and Director of the Centre for Canadian Studies


Notes:

[1] “Qtd from Allan April, “Two Halifax-area schools to change names after controversies” CTVnews.ca (1 April 2021) <https://atlantic.ctvnews.ca/two-halifax-area-schools-to-change-names-after-controversy-1.5371118&gt; (Accessed 1 April 2021) and Jen Taplin, “Sir John A. Macdonald High School in Upper Tantallon looks to change its name” TheChronicleHerald.ca (13 November 2020) <thechronicleherald.ca/news/local/sir-john-a-macdonald-high-school-in-upper-tantallon-to-change-name-519866> (accessed 28 March 2021).

[2] CBC News, “City still considering John A. Macdonald statue options, Charlottetown mayor says,” CBCNews. Ca (11 March 2021) <cbc.ca/news/Canada/prince-edward-island/pei-john-a-macdonald-statue-charlottetown-march-1.5943896> (accessed 1 April 2021).

[3] For one good discussion, see Jennifer Reid, Louis Riel and the Creation of Modern Canada: Mythic Discourse and the Postcolonial State (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2012).

About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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