Renaming monuments is closer look at history

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If there are any schools named after Sir John A. Macdonald in Manitoba, I haven’t been able to locate them. Winnipeg has a school named after his son, Hugh John, who lived here. There are lots of city schools named for colonial figures from far away or close to home: Cecil Rhodes, Isaac Brock, General Wolfe and Wolseley, for Colonel Garnet Wolseley who led British troops into Red River Settlement, where modern Winnipeg now is, in 1870.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/09/2017 (1803 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

If there are any schools named after Sir John A. Macdonald in Manitoba, I haven’t been able to locate them. Winnipeg has a school named after his son, Hugh John, who lived here. There are lots of city schools named for colonial figures from far away or close to home: Cecil Rhodes, Isaac Brock, General Wolfe and Wolseley, for Colonel Garnet Wolseley who led British troops into Red River Settlement, where modern Winnipeg now is, in 1870.

That Manitoba has no schools named after Canada’s first prime minister tells us something about the politics of commemoration, how they develop and how they can change. When people argue in favour of taking down statues or renaming schools, they aren’t erasing history: they are looking it squarely in the eye. Statues, plaques and commemorative names aren’t history: they are commemorations, and usually celebrations, of select and revealing parts of it.

Who is chosen to be venerated usually tells us more about the people who named the school or paid for the statue than it does about the time and place they evoke. South of the border, most statues to Confederate generals were put up long after the U.S. Civil War, when white privilege was under particular threat: during the Jim Crow years of intense racial segregation in the early 1900s, and again during the height of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Sir John A. Macdonald Park in Transcona

In Canada, discussions about the politics of commemoration in general, and about Macdonald in particular, are not new. Arguments in favour of removing Macdonald’s name have been made in the pages of the mainstream press with some regularity over the past three years.

Since last month, newspapers and timelines have been filled with discussion of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario’s recommendation that the province rename schools bearing the name of Macdonald. Writer Robert Jago points out that this is hardly the most pressing issue for Indigenous Peoples. But it is perhaps one we can keep in proportion and learn from.

Macdonald inspired a modest number of namings around the end of his life in 1891, including Manitoba’s Rural Municipality of Macdonald. But it was in the 1960s and ’70s that Canadians began to really name things after the first prime minister, who, 80 years after his death, could become a general symbol of nationhood, stripped of much of its messy, partisan and often violent history.

The Macdonald-Cartier Freeway got its name in 1965, and the $10 bill first bore Macdonald’s face in 1971. A quick Google search suggests that many schools were named after Macdonald in these years, including Calgary’s Sir John A. Macdonald Junior High School (1967), Scarborough’s Sir John A. Macdonald Collegiate Institute (1964) and Hamilton’s Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary School (1970). In the 1990s and 2010s, some high-profile places were renamed after Macdonald, including Ottawa’s River Parkway, which in 2012 became the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway at a cost of $60,000 in signage.

These commemorations occurred in spite of critiques of Macdonald and what he represented. To say that Macdonald was a man of his time is too easy, by far. Macdonald’s commitment to white supremacy and his centrality to a suite of policies that meet the usual definition of genocide were noted during his lifetime. Of course, he wasn’t the only one. The system of residential schools functioned because it was just that, a system, and such things inevitably go well beyond any one individual, government or party.

The schools and roadways named after Macdonald mainly tell us about the aspirations and anxieties of some English-speaking Canadians in fairly recent decades. The 1960s and ’70s were years of English-Canadian nationalism: think Expo ’67, Canadian content requirements, bilingualism and biculturalism.

Those years were also marked by Québécois nationalism, Indigenous resistance, the challenges of feminism and a Canada that was less and less white. In this context, some Canadians chose Macdonald as a symbol. They may well have had other aspects of his legacy in mind, but the choice effectively worked to enshrine someone tied to the dispossession of Indigenous peoples and the marginalization of racialized people.

Names and statues are not history, but brittle symbols of the society that chose them. We might have made other choices and we still can. When we admit this, we are taking history very seriously indeed.

Adele Perry is a professor of history and a senior fellow at St. John’s College, University of Manitoba.

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