A similar debate is also brewing in Canada and it involves the country’s first prime minister.
Sir John A. Macdonald was one of the founders of the Dominion of Canada and during his terms as prime minister (1867-1873 and 1878-1891), the transcontinental railway was built. But he also served during the time the federal government approved the first residential schools in the country.
“He built this country but decided Indigenous people did not have a place in this country. They were disposable,” said James Daschuk, an assistant professor of history at the University of Regina and author of Clearing the Plains.
“He set up treaties and broke them, starved thousands of people on reserves, and was the architect for the relationship between Canada and First Nations … and the racism still festers today.”
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Due to that aspect of his past, the union that represents elementary school teachers in Ontario — the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (EFTO) — is pushing to remove his name from a handful of schools across the province. The ETFO said using Macdonald’s name creates an unsafe environment for kids to learn and work in because of what it calls Macdonald’s role as the “architect of genocide against Indigenous Peoples.”
One of these schools, Sir John A. Macdonald Public School in Pickering, Ont., is on the union’s list for a name change. But Conservative MP Erin O’Toole, who represents the area, called the decision “embarrassing.”
Daschuk said he understands racism was prevalent in the 1800s, but says Macdonald wasn’t “just racist,” he was also very cruel.
It wasn’t just with Indigenous people, Daschuk says. In 1885, Macdonald told the House of Commons that Canada should take away the vote from people of Chinese origin on the grounds that they were a different race than Europeans.
“He said it’s because their presence in the country is incompatible with the Aryan nation in this country,” said Timothy Stanley, a history professor at the University of Ottawa.
Should his name be removed?
Across Canada, there are a handful of schools, rivers, buildings, statues and airports named after Macdonald — he’s also featured on the $10 bill.
Daschuk said he’s “ambivalent” about stripping Macdonald’s name from buildings, as it is still part of Canada’s history. But he does believe this is a positive step forward as people are starting to debate and shine a light on darker aspects of Canada’s history.
“I am not particularly in favour of taking down his statue on Parliament Hill,” he said. “But you can put an interpretive plaque that explains things. The new Canadian Museum of History has made an effort to make a balanced perspective on him.”
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However, Stanley said when it comes to schools bearing Macdonald’s name, he thinks that should change.
“Naming a school after him is teaching young people something. It teaches them that racism and his active role in genocide does not matter.”
Other controversial names
The ETFO’s call comes after a student-led campaign at Toronto’s Ryerson University last month pushed for the school to change its name out of respect for residential school survivors.
The downtown university is named for Egerton Ryerson, a pioneer of public education in Ontario who is widely believed to have helped shape residential school policy through his ideas on education for Indigenous children.
And in June, the name of founding father Hector-Louis Langevin was stripped from the building that houses the Prime Minister’s Office on Parliament Hill. Langevin argued for a separate school system with a specific mandate to assimilate Indigenous children.
— With files from the Canadian Press