Does Canada Fear Change, or do We Fear the Truth?
Generations of Canadians have fought hard to create a space in which all can enjoy a feeling of safety, compassion, and an appreciation of diversity. Why are we holding on so dearly to a figure that represents quite the opposite of that? Are we simply afraid of change? There has been recent controversy in Canada regarding whether or not the name and figure of first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, should be removed from the public sphere in light of his racist practices, as demonstrated by his residential school system and the implementation of the Chinese Immigration Act. Macdonald unified Canada through the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway and was an early advocate for women’s right to vote; however, his oppression of racial minorities in Canada has created deep, multigenerational wounds that are still being healed. While he was essential to the creation of Canada as a country, John A. Macdonald’s oppression of Indigenous and Chinese communities, along with his representation of a set of outdated values, calls for the removal of his likeness from public spaces.
John A. Macdonald’s name is in widespread use on schools and upon commemorative statues. The presence of his figure in the public sphere ignores the lingering consequences of his residential school system and the Chinese Immigration Act. In the interest of moving Canada forward progressively, it is important to understand that as Canadians, “we have a shared history, but we have more importantly a shared future, so let’s build a country on truth and honesty” (Bellegarde). The children whose family members were directly oppressed by Macdonald’s actions are not provided with the safe space for learning to which they are entitled, when their schools bear the very name of their ancestors’ oppressor. John A. Macdonald was a major contributor to the establishment of the residential school system, in which he separated Indigenous children from their families in an attempt to convert and integrate them into a European lifestyle. The result of this aggression was widespread youth deaths and destruction of culture, families, and security among Indigenous communities in Canada. Similarly, as the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway came to a close, Macdonald established the Chinese Immigration Act, which placed a head tax and major restrictions on Chinese immigrants. The Act, which resulted in the severance of families and the initiation of systemic racial discrimination in Canada, was a tactic to curb the influx of Chinese and their resulting population growth in Canada. This damage continues to impact the lives of many families in Canada, and progress in healing cannot be achieved without creating a space of safety and understanding – away from the name and image of Macdonald.
Some Canadians are concerned that the removal of John A. Macdonald’s figure from the public sphere is equivalent to an attempt to erase or rewrite history. Rather than changing our past, removing these monuments would recognise other sides of Macdonald’s history and help Canada shift away from just one set of views on his legacy. As Canada broadens the understanding of its own history, ‘we need to teach our children the full history of this country – including colonialism, our indigenous peoples and their history and about what our founders did to create Canada and make it the country it is today” (Wynne). Memorializing Macdonald in statues and monuments attempts to represent only his contributions that are deemed positive and constructive; however the values held by Macdonald which are no longer concurrent with general Canadian views are perpetuated at the same time. Youth in particular deserve the chance to be exposed to all the perspectives on Canadian history necessary to get the full story, and to push Canada in the direction of healing and progressiveness.
While Macdonald’s accomplishments and the threat of erasing history must be considered, his racism and impact on minority groups in Canada has lead to controversy around maintaining his place in the civil domain. John A. Macdonald’s contributions were essential to the development of Canada, but his removal from the public sphere is called for as a result of his connection to racial oppression and assumptions of White superiority in Canada. When we hold on to the oppressive figures of our past, we must also consider what other aspects of the past we are inadvertently pulling into our future.