John A. Macdonald: A Social Disgrace for the Wrong Reasons

The lens through which we look at history affects our view of the values of different times. We may look at our past using a historical lens, or we might look at it through a shielded bias. Nevertheless, it’s the opinions and debate on our values and how they have changed over time that affect and drive the most change in our community. In the case of Canada, a debate has been sparked since 2017 on whether or not John A. Macdonald should be in the public sphere, statues, or building names. On one hand, there are various movements that say that Macdonald should be removed because of his involvement in residential schools and his actions against Chinese Canadians. On the other hand, there are groups that say that Macdonald is an important part of Canadian history because of his work with the Canadian Pacific Railway project and his actions in uniting Canada as a Founding Father and first Prime Minister. Because of his historical impact as a Founding Father, his views around women and their right to vote, and the bias of current values affecting our judgement of his actions, John A. Macdonald’s name and likeness should not be removed from the public sphere.

While some people view John A. Macdonald as someone who contradicts Canadian values, he was actually quite progressive for his time, especially concerning his work surrounding women and their rights in a social and political environment. In the words of John A. Macdonald, he was “strongly of that opinion […] that Canada would have the honour of first placing women in the position she is certain, […] completely establishing her equality as a human being and as a member of society with man” (Macdonald). Macdonald believed that women were of equal status as men and should be allowed to vote, a view uncommon in the 1800s. His values were not reciprocated by his fellow politicians and although he fought, he was unable to pass the law allowing women the right to vote. However, we need to remember that Macdonald was fighting against the predominant social value in his time. All his views, the good and the bad, were influenced by the values of the 1800s and not the values of the present day. It’s when we look at our past through a skewed historical lens based solely on the views of our time alone that we are the blindest to how those values came to be. Without people like Macdonald who challenged the beliefs and norms of their time, the social values we hold dear today would not have come into existence.

Those who agree with social liberal ideas would say that Canadian values change over time and that John A. Macdonald contradicted those values with his contributions to Indigenous oppression. However, it’s important to realize that history needs to be viewed from many sides, and Canadian history has its high and low points. Erasing that history in a hasty attempt at political correctness isn’t going to fix the mistakes of the past; rather, it’s learning from our history that paves the way for repairing the future. We 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”, because without hearing both sides, the cycle of historical bias and uneducated oppression continues (Moore). While John A. Macdonald’s actions against indigenous people were horrible, we must realize that those crimes happened during a time where Canadian values were different. It’s teaching about Macdonald and how he exemplified and contradicted present day norms that shows how much Canadian values have changed over time. John A. Macdonald’s statues are not just a piece of our history; they are symbols of a change in values from the 1800s to the present day. Someday there will be monuments of people from our time who will contradict the values of the future, just as there are statues of people from the past that contradict our values. Erasing any statues or mention in the public sphere of anyone who contradicts social beliefs is fruitless; eventually, no statues or major traces of history will remain because everyone has flaws. The knowledge that can be gained from learning both sides of our past is what drives and leads to social change.

In order to raise awareness of John A. Macdonald’s flaws and actions against Indigenous people, communities such as the Victoria City Council decided that statues of Macdonald should be removed from the public sphere as it positively promotes a man whose values does not line up with Canada’s values today. However, many groups such as members of the previous Conservative party argue that John A. Macdonald is an important part of Canadian history as it’s first Prime Minister, and that there are other historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson who have contradicted global values around slavery but haven’t been removed. Because of his progressiveness on women’s rights and his widespread impact as a Founding Father of Canada, John A. Macdonald does not deserve to have his name and statues erased from the public sphere, especially when most of his actions are being viewed by a historical bias. All historical figures leave good and bad impacts but it is not our place to judge them through the values of our own time. Rather, it’s when we look at the world through an open mind and see both sides of the story that we gain the most understanding of our history.

 

Works Used

Sears, Matthew A. “Monuments Aren’t Museums, and History Suffers When We Forget That.” Macleans.ca, 14 Aug. 2018, www.macleans.ca/opinion/monuments-arent-museums-and-history-suffers-when-we-forget-that/.

Wherry, Aaron. “’A Teachable Moment’: Debating Whether John A. Macdonald’s Name Should Be Scrubbed from Schools | CBC News.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 25 Aug. 2017, www.cbc.ca/news/politics/john-a-macdonald-etfo-schools-analysis-aaron-wherry-1.4260366.

Zussman, Richard. “Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps Apologizes for Way Decision to Take down John A. Macdonald Statue Handled.” Global News, 29 Aug. 2018, globalnews.ca/news/4416475/victoria-mayor-lisa-helps-apologizes-decision-john-a-macdonald-statue-handled/.

Bascaramurty, Dakshana. “Debate Escalates over Legacy of John A. Macdonald in Ontario Schools.” The Globe and Mail, 25 Aug. 2017, www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/ontario-elementary-teachers-union-wants-john-a-macdonald-schools-renamed/article36076966/.

Gwyn, Richard. “Richard Gwyn: How Macdonald Almost Gave Women the Vote.” National Post, 14 Jan. 2015, nationalpost.com/opinion/richard-gwyn-how-macdonald-almost-gave-women-the-vote.

Belshaw, John Douglas. “Canadian History: Pre-Confederation.” Canadian History PreConfederation, BCcampus, 13 Apr. 2015, opentextbc.ca/preconfederation/chapter/10-7-gender-roles/.

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