Musings on Sir John A. and the Removal of His Statue

By Dr David Laing Dawson

Herein lies the problem I think: No man or woman has ever led a life that later generations, looking back through the prism of history and an evolving set of values, could ever be deemed perfect, or even exemplary.

We know we shouldn’t whitewash history. It is important for us to know thoroughly and honestly the actions and the consequences of actions of our ancestors. (But even here I must pause and think for a moment of the origin and subtle but unintended meaning of the idiom “whitewash”.)

But in judging them, our ancestors (if we must judge them), it is a tad unfair to apply contemporary philosophies, knowledge and values.

The residential schools were a mistake. But at the time Sir John A. was promoting this “solution” to an incredible problem, the notion of sending young kids off to a boarding school was not outrageous. In fact, the wealthy did it all the time. If you told them about the problem of pedophiles being attracted to collections of vulnerable children (whether that be the poor neighbourhood soccer team, an English boarding school, or a residential school) they would have stared in disbelief, and if you posited that there just might be many homosexual pedophiles in any boys-only-club (such as the RC clergy) they would have sent you home to do penance. If you talked to them about the consequences of breaking early attachments, of displacement from language and culture, they would have stared at you with the same bewilderment should you be talking about the double helix or quantum mechanics. In MacDonald’s time children were perceived as small persons requiring moulding and shaping by discipline and rote learning.

Perhaps the solution is to have no statues of individual men or women in our public spaces. Perhaps we should erect monuments to our achievements, not to the poor human being behind the achievement. For in reality, each human achievement comes in its time, and ultimately could be tagged to any number of people.

(Woodward and Shaw created and patented an electric light bulb in Canada. Edison bought that patent 4 years later. An industrial road in Hamilton has been renamed the Nikola Tesla Boulevard. And if none of these individual humans had been born, the credit for the light bulb and our electricity grid might have fallen to others a few years later.)

But it appears to be in our nature to need Gods and heroes, and to then bask in their reflected glory. Can we do without them or are these individual names and statues irreplaceable markers within our historical sense of self? Are they, these individuals, necessary glue for our social cohesion?

We could try doing without these markers. We could ensure our history books tell the full story, warts and all, but only commemorate in bronze and stone our achievements and our follies.

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2 thoughts on “Musings on Sir John A. and the Removal of His Statue

  1. I agree with you completely that history should not be “whitewashed”, re-written, or obliterated. But, it should be complete and honest.

    In America, the removal of Confederate Statues has been reduced to a war to control the narrative between extremist philosophies. If either side were willing to learn and incorporate history into their analysis, they would immediately amend their individual positions. Unfortunately, by definition, extremists (and those that accommodate, enable, or support them) are driven not by fact but rather by philosophy alone. It should be of note that most of the Confederate statues in the US were put up in the early twentieth century by a white supremacist Christian political movement to expand the fictional representation of the Confederacy as an honorable, moral, Christian, and patriotic movement based on the true American heritage. Unfortunately, rather than address and publicize this fact, and ask for the proper contextualization for any monument on public lands, the liberal extremists took control of the media limelight and saw more gain in the visceral destruction or removal of Confederate monuments rather than providing a complete historical narrative. And the conservatives, saw this conflict as an opportunity to expand their base, financial resources, as well as global internet or social media presence. Neither side, is on the side of the “angels”.

    Similarly, in Canada, the complete history of each of our leaders, should be researched, academically confirmed, and then provided to the public. But, it is not. Sir John A. MacDonald was a great politician and leader at a formative period for our nation. However, his political and social visions were based solely on a Christian white male perspective. Yes, Sir John A. MacDonald built many essential legislative, governmental, and military infrastructures that allowed Canada to survive and thrive. However, the residential schools were not any form of altruistic government or societal project. The First Nations’ cultures were based on family ties as well as oral traditions of every aspect of their lives that if broken would lead to the decimation of their nations. And, Sir John A. MacDonald (as well as his government and supporters) fully understood that fact. Unfortunately, they were driven by an ideal of the “White Man’s Burden”. He felt that it was his duty as a white man and a Christian to raise the First Nations from their genetic, cultural, and religious retardation to a “civilized” standard.

    Sir John A MacDonald’s society would have been shocked had they had realized that there were pedophile priests, nuns, and others in the structures of the boarding schools of their own children. However, their children were sent to boarding schools for a religious instruction, classical education and parenting. Unfortunately, the First Nation children who were kidnapped from their parents and communities were far lesser beings. To that end, the children had their religiously and culturally significant hair shorn, and they were subject to beatings, sexual abuse, and torture for using their native languages or discussing their families, tribes, religion or culture. The Canadian Residential School “solution” utilized the blueprint used throughout history to re-educate, redeem, and assimilate the conquered. Obviously, this is sadly not limited to any religious, social, or political philosophy. In fact, in 2018, due to populism, fascism, religious or political radicalization, there has been an incorporation and evolution of those structures found in every country from America to China and from Russia to Saudi Arabia.

    Returning to the issue of the statues of Sir John A. MacDonald, they should NOT be removed, defaced, or obscured in any way. We are a nation, whose pluralistic and democratic culture and institutions have evolved with the essential element of freedom with responsibility. Since these monuments to Sir John A MacDonald are public property as well as historically significant, they must be protected. There should be an addition to the monument that notes the appalling actions and policies of one of Canada’s national heroes. There is no perfect human being. But, the erasing of history is no better than the fictionalization of history. We as a nation have survived due to Sir John A MacDonald’s leadership, but the First Nations can never be made right after the cultural holocaust of the Residential Schools or national racism that they have faced throughout our history. Everyone in life must accept and rebuild after defeats whether material, psychological or metaphysical. It is the responsibility of Canada to assist the First Nations to recognize their history (and ours), provide reasonable accommodation, redress, and relief, as well as assist all the tribes to become integrated but not assimilated parts of the fabric of Canada. Accordingly, it is the duty of the First Nations to build their communities and members to actively contribute to this process. Finally, it is the responsibility of all Canadians to evolve into a nation that aspires to education, intellect, critical thinking, pluralism, social democracy, and most importantly rational as well as respectful discourse.

    Cheers.

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  2. I appreciated the removal of John A. MacDonald’s statue in Victoria. It gave me a sense of satisfaction even though I am not First Nations. I just thought “F–k Oppression”.

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