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Reconciliation, Not Revenge

by Lyle H,

There are few topics that make me angrier than attacks on the legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald. I find it preposterous that, in this great country of ours, we are not allowed to be proud of our country or celebrate its founder.

But this debate does not need any more irrational emotion, from me or anyone else. It needs facts and reason, even though I know such things are out of fashion in the social media age.

Let's start with what is easily the most important fact: Indigenous people have suffered profound injustices at the hands of Canadians. But that guilt is shared by our whole nation, across generations. It seems to me that there is something of a "whipping boy" mentality to the anti-John A campaign - sure, let's blame this one guy so the rest of us can feel less guilty. Conversely, on the Indigenous side, it is clear that what they require is systemic change, but that takes years, sometimes generations; symbols, such as statues, are easy targets that allow for quick victories, but not especially meaningful ones.

Now, let's look at the facts, pro and con, about Sir John A and his time:

- Contrary to the persistent rhetoric, Macdonald did not invent the residential school system. Residential schools had been in existence in the Canadian colonies since the 1830s. Further, under Macdonald's government, residential schools were voluntary.
- It is further not true that Macdonald "caused starvation" amongst Indigenous people. They were self-sufficient hunters and their famine was caused by the decline of the buffalo population. Further, with regard to the Treaty-mandated food aid, Macdonald tripled the budget of the Department of Indian Affairs during his governments.
- Macdonald was the first politician to propose (unsuccessfully) that Indigenous people be granted full citizenship and voting rights, at a time when they had neither. Would a hardened racist (as he is depicted by his critics) propose such a thing?

On the other hand ...
- Like all of his peers in Canadian politics at that time (and likely most people in Canadian society), Macdonald explicitly and undeniably viewed Indigenous people as heathen savages in need of civilizing and Christianizing. To that end, he was perfectly happy to perpetuate the residential school system that seemed best suited to those purposes - and so was every successive Canadian government for generations.
- In the late 19th century, the Canadian government had zero experience in delivering social services so it is fair to say that the roll out of famine food aid was horrendously botched, by Macdonald and his successors. Further, Macdonald and every government at that time used the civil service middle management for patronage purposes, meaning that many of the Indian agents charged with distributing the food aid were at best incompetent and at worst corrupt. In a court of law, it would be difficult to convict Macdonald of a crime of malice, but one could easily make a case for a crime of negligence.

History, as we see, is complicated. Humans are complicated and flawed. To depict Macdonald as some sort of evil criminal mastermind maliciously bent on wholesale genocide is, well, simplistic would be the kindest word I could give to it.

Yes, yes, a million times yes, we should not err on the other side of simplicity by lionizing Macdonald without context. But we can do that without demonizing the man or ignoring his legitimate accomplishments.

While there are many aspects of this debate, on both sides, that are frustrating and driven by irrational emotion, there are other aspects that give one hope for a compromise that is in the true spirit of reconciliation. Advocates on the right are saying the statue should stay in place but be surrounded by statues of Indigenous leaders, who have been too long ignored. Advocates for removing the statue have signaled that they would be content to have it relocated to the Legislature or Government House. Both of these seem like perfectly reasonable proposals with which everyone could be content.

Perhaps the worst proposal that has been floated has been the notion of moving the statue to a museum, surrounded by plaques listing his alleged crimes. This would be a poor solution for two reasons. First, it is contrary to the original artistic intent of the artist, who conceived it as a piece of outdoor sculpture. Second, it sides too heavily on the side of those saying we should be ashamed of our nation's founder.

I would therefore urge the City to consider any of the many excellent suggestions that have favoured preserving the statue's status as outdoor public artwork, with a balanced recounting of his legacy attached.

Consultation has concluded