Following the violent clashes that erupted in Charlottesville, Va., after the proposed removal of a statue of a Confederate general, calls to remove other Confederate monuments have grown. But after several were removed, worry set upon U.S. President Donald Trump. He turned to Twitter, warning of what could come if cities continued taking down statues of historical figures that offended some people: “… Who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!”

Well, Canada is having a George Washington moment.

An ongoing debate over first prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s legacy has been recharged this week with a resolution passed by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario that recommends the province’s schools rename facilities bearing the first prime minister’s moniker, given Macdonald’s role in the “genocide against Indigenous people.”

In a statement, Premier Kathleen Wynne said the union’s motion “missed the mark.” She described Macdonald as “far from perfect” but praised him for his contributions “to the creation of a stable federal government for Canada.”

She said it was more important for Ontarians to focus on how to enact meaningful reconciliation with Indigenous people than scrub his name from schools.

Unlike other controversial historical figures who have sparked similar discussions in Canada over whether they should have buildings or statues in their name – Indian commissioner Edgar Dewdney, who helped establish the reserve system or Halifax founder Edward Cornwallis, who offered a bounty for the scalps of the Mi’kmaq – Macdonald is seen, even by his critics, as more complex because of his central role in the founding of the country.

Although popular history remembers him as “an affable drunk” it’s not difficult to unearth the blatantly racist views Macdonald held, particularly toward Indigenous people, says James Daschuk, author of Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, which includes a scathing critique of Macdonald.

In May, 1883, Macdonald stood up in the House of Commons and said that if an Indigenous child attended a school on their reserve, they would be “simply a savage who can read and write.” For this reason, he recommended children be forcefully separated from their parents and put into residential schools where they could “acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”

Macdonald also introduced the pass system in 1885, in which Indigenous people were only allowed to leave their reserves if they had a pass signed by a (typically white) Indian agent. The system, though not part of the Indian Act and therefore illegal, was enforced until the 1940s.

Reserves were introduced by Macdonald on the Prairies in order to clear the land for the Canadian Pacific Railway, and once Indigenous people were on reserves, food was rationed. For many decades, as a form of punishment, rations were not regularly distributed leading to the deaths of thousands due to malnutrition and disease. In a May, 1882, parliamentary debate over what was seen as a too-high cost of managing reserves, Macdonald said, “I have reason to believe that the agents as a whole, and I am sure it is the same with the Commissioner, are doing all they can, by refusing food until the Indians are on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense.”

Years before the ETFO resolution, a backlash to Canada’s Father of Confederation was already under way. As plans were made to mark the 200th anniversary of Macdonald’s birth, historians, student activists and Indigenous people were asking why he was being feted.

In 2013, a statue in Kingston was vandalized, tagged with the words “murderer” and “colonizer.” And, in 2015, at an anniversary celebration, Hamilton protesters taped a sign that said “father of native genocide” to their city’s statue. In 2016, following protest, Wilfrid Laurier University backed out of a project that would have seen statues of 22 prime ministers – including Macdonald – installed on campus in time for Canada’s sesquicentennial.

As heritage minister in the Harper government, James Moore oversaw preparations to mark the 200th anniversary of Macdonald’s birth in 2015. Speaking by phone from Vancouver, he said he understands why some might be disturbed by legacy of Canada’s first prime minister.

“He was a deeply imperfect man,” Mr. Moore said. But “the fact is, Canada would not exist without John A. Macdonald. He is the great, indispensable man of Canadian history.”

Rather than erasing Macdonald from historical memory, Mr. Moore said, educators need to “understand the reality of John A. Macdonald – to teach his flaws and his virtues, and embrace our history, not run away from it.”

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall noted Macdonald’s views were conventional for the time period and echoed similar worries to Mr. Trump’s in a Facebook post on Thursday. “Is it not a short walk between the calls to remove the name of our first Prime Minister from schools, to the closing of the Lincoln memorial in Washington DC, or the removal of Tommy Douglas’ name from a Saskatoon school?”

Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said removing the first prime minister’s name from a school isn’t akin to whitewashing history.

“I don’t think it’s about revising or erasing history,” he said. “It’s about being honest about true history.”

He applauded the recommendation to change the schools’ names, and said it was a mark of progress that the suggestion originated with the teachers’ union, not with an Indigenous group.

Indigenous activist Cindy Blackstock has taken a different approach to correcting the historical record: She has successfully fought to have plaques at Ottawa’s Beechwood Cemetery created or changed to highlight the controversies or acknowledge the unsung work of historical figures buried there. In May, the plaque at the grave of Nicholas Flood Davin, a celebrated journalist and figure in the women’s suffrage movement, was updated to describe how he authored a report in support of residential schools – a system that was “cultural genocide.”

Given Macdonald’s stature, a plaque hung inside a school bearing his name would not be enough to correct the popular record on the father of confederation, ETFO president Sam Hammond says.

“I don’t see any benefit in leaving a school name and putting a plaque in the hall to say ‘here’s the dark side of him,’” Mr. Hammond said. “I think it would be very difficult for an Indigenous student to sit in on a history class, learn not the colonial history, but the real history of Canada, and come out of that building and realize this very school you go to is named after the person who tried to eliminate your people in this country.”

The suggestion from Macdonald’s defenders that this was in the past, that Macdonald should not be judged by today’s standards, doesn’t sit well with Indigenous policy analyst Russell Diabo, given the lasting legacy of Macdonald’s policies.

“There’s been systematic dispossession of Indigenous peoples of their lands, territories and resources starting with him,” Mr. Diabo said. “I work with Algonquin communities to this day who were promised … that their lands would be protected and they never were.”

Dr. Daschuk is optimistic about the version of Canadian history that children are learning. He speaks to groups of children in Regina about the country’s history and says they always seem ready to hear his message.

“It’s probably the old people, with the vested interest in the status quo, who are giving the most pushback on this,” he says. “A lot of people upset with the fact that we’re even considering this have been the beneficiaries of Macdonald’s policies. … The people that want it changed have had the opposite experience.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017 9:37AM EDT
Last updated Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017 10:14PM EDT