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This article was published 6/6/2021 (387 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It is not to remember history but rather to honour it that statues in the likeness of prominent Canadian political figures are erected or that their names adorn the front walls of public buildings.
As often as not, their elevation to the rank of national icons does more to distort history than to enshrine it in Canada’s collective memory.
Take Sir John A. Macdonald, whose statues dot the country from coast to coast to coast, albeit in ever diminishing numbers these days.
It was not so long ago that most students in Canada would never have had occasion — over the course of their entire schooling — to be told about the leading role Canada’s first prime minister played in the creation of the country’s Indigenous residential school system. For decades, the very existence of the system barely warranted a footnote in the curriculum.
Instead, Macdonald is remembered for the BNA Act, the coming together of Canadian provinces and the massive railroad undertaking that linked a nascent federation from coast to coast. The latter played a key role in establishing the foundations of Canada as we know it.
Macdonald’s defenders argue that it is possible to celebrate his founding role in Canada’s history while castigating the Indigenous portion of its legacy. But those are not so easily separated.
The residential school system lasted almost as long as Macdonald’s railroad and is no less a defining feature of his record. The motive behind it sprung not from some misguided charitable intentions but from a form of racist contempt that allowed its crafters and those who toiled within the system to dehumanize Indigenous peoples.
The rot started at the top; it spread to much of Canadian society.
Indeed, it is not only through the residential schools that the spirit that guided Macdonald’s denial of the existence and/or the worthiness of Canada’s Indigenous peoples lived on.
It seeped into other areas of the legacy his admirers are keen to continue to celebrate.
Over the past decades, people who should know better have for instance routinely compared the building of a trans-Canadian pipeline network to the railroad of the previous century, the better to lament what they see as the loss of the country’s capacity to undertake ambitious nation-building projects.
But should a time when Indigenous communities were not allowed to stand in the way of what the white majority in this country construed as progress really be looked back on as a golden era?
Part of what has been shocking about the events of the past week is that it seemed to take the Kamloops tragedy for many people to finally connect the dots between Canada’s Indigenous policy and the thousands of lives spent or cut short in state-imposed childhood misery.
It is not as if the horrors of the residential school system had not been documented. Scores of survivors have testified about their experience. Too often their testimony has fallen on deaf ears or been dismissed as a sign of less enlightened times. And yet Canada’s last residential school closed down as recently as the mid-nineties.
Notwithstanding inconvenient facts, some continue to cast the residential school concept as a product of good intentions gone astray. It takes an uncommon capacity for wilful blindness to reduce a cultural genocide to the equivalent of a bad day in the prime minister’s office.
It will take a while to know if the past week has been a watershed moment in the reconciliation conversation or just a blip on the radar of an easily distracted public. In the past, voters have not tended to punish leaders who failed to walk their pro-reconciliation talk.
Still, the history that is taught in Canada’s classrooms these days bears little resemblance to the self-serving depiction of the early settlers as heroic figures on a civilizing mission that for so long cast the country’s beginnings in an artificially glorious light.
In time, more and more Canadians will come to ask themselves why Macdonald’s clay feet belong on a pedestal. It will be harder going forward to counterbalance his atrocious Indigenous policies with the rest of his record.
This week, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney rushed to the barricades to argue that to take down the names and the statues of tainted political figures such as Macdonald amounts to cancelling history.
There was a time when that argument would have resonated more loudly, in particular on the front bench of the federal Conservative party. But this week, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole seemed happy to watch Kenney’s parade from the sidelines. It may be that it sounded too much like whistling past the graves of thousands of Indigenous children.
The fact is that Macdonald’s place, along with those of the other architects of Canada’s residential school system, has never been more securely anchored in the country’s history books. They will not soon be forgotten.
Chantal Hébert is an Ottawa-based freelance contributing columnist covering politics for the Star. Reach her via email: email@example.com or follow her on Twitter: @ChantalHbert