The arm’s-length board that advises the federal government on historical matters says it will be reviewing its “policies and guidelines” as controversy swirls around schools named for John A. Macdonald and monuments across the country with ties to some of Canada’s darkest chapters.
The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada says it is “aware of public concern” that sites honouring some of the country’s best-known historical figures and events may gloss over links to oppression, systemic racism and other forms of discrimination.
“(The board) will be considering its policies and guidelines related to this matter at its next meeting,” according to a statement sent to Global News on Thursday from Parks Canada, which provides support for the board.
“Public concerns regarding national historic designations are also discussed as part of their ongoing work.”
Global News also asked for details on the process for filing a complaint about a particular site, and exactly how the board reviews each complaint. No answers were provided.
A similar debate surrounding monuments and sites of historical significance is underway in the United States, where the removal of Confederate statues in some states has resulted in violent clashes.
In Canada, the discussion has not descended into brawling, but it has generated headlines and prompted passionate arguments on both sides. Last month, activists in Halifax were successful in convincing the city to cover a statue of British colonel Edward Cornwallis, who in 1749 approved an infamous scalping proclamation against Mi’kmaq “savages.”
Then, earlier this week, an Ontario teachers’ union agreed that the name of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, should be removed from the province’s public schools given Macdonald’s support for government programs that attempted to wipe out Canada’s Indigenous Peoples and strip certain racial minorities of their right to vote.
WATCH: Calls to remove John A. Macdonald’s name from Ontario schools
The Historic Sites and Monuments Board has no control over the naming of schools, but it does advise the federal government on the historic aspects of federal parks, buildings, monuments and other sites.
One statue of French explorer Samuel de Champlain in Orillia, Ont., for example, may see its plaque replaced after the board considers what to do about the current wording. Right now, the plaque tells visitors that the monument was erected “to commemorate the advent into Ontario of the white race under the leadership of Samuel de Champlain.”
In Prince Edward Island, meanwhile, local Indigenous groups have tried repeatedly to have the Port-la-Joye–Fort Amherst National Historic Site renamed by Parks Canada – without success. Jeffery Amherst was an 18th century British army officer who conspired to eradicate the local Indigenous population using smallpox-laced blankets.
“The Agency continues to consult and engage with the Mi’kmaq Confederacy of PEI on matters related to the name of Port-la-Joye–Fort Amherst National Historic Site and on how we can move forward in a way that is respectful and in support of advancing reconciliation.” Parks Canada told Global News this week.
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It’s unclear what consultations have taken place since Parks Canada refused to rename the park last May. Global News has reached out to the Mi’kmaq Confederacy for comment.
At a press conference on Friday, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale addressed the ongoing debate surrounding how to honour Canada’s past without ignoring historical wrongs.
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“What is healthy about this is a full discussion in the public domain, so that people have an opportunity to learn and to be educated about the flow of history,” Goodale said.
“The controversy generates the opportunity for a higher level of information, education and understanding.”