Walkom: Can any past PMs pass muster today?

The controversy over history has finally targeted John A. Macdonald. It was only a matter of time.

The only question now is which prime minister will be next.

Perhaps it was appropriate teachers pulled the trigger on Macdonald. The Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, a union, went public last week with its call to strip the name of Canada’s first prime minister from any schools using it.

There are at least three public schools in the Greater Toronto area named after Macdonald and at least nine in Ontario as a whole.

He’s generally credited with being the key force behind the 1867 Confederation deal that created modern Canada.

But Macdonald was also very much of creature of his times. That meant, among other things, that he did not possess what today’s world would call enlightened views on the place of Indigenous people in Canada.

To Victorians like Macdonald, native North Americans were troublesome remnants of a people whose time had come and gone.

They were also viewed as a real military threat. The Battle of the Little Bighorn, in which warriors inspired by Lakota leader Sitting Bull defeated U.S. forces led by George Custer, occurred when the new Canada was only nine years old.

A few years later, in 1885, Macdonald sent Canadian troops to put down the Indigenous uprising in Saskatchewan known as the second Riel rebellion.

So perhaps it is not surprising that when it came to Indigenous people, his main concern was to pacify and assimilate them through institutions, such as residential schools.

Not nice perhaps, but not surprising.

Should such a man be honoured by having his name attached to public schools? Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations says no. Bellegarde may be right.

The problem is that Macdonald is not the only historical leader whose behaviour would fail to pass muster today. Wilfrid Laurier, the Liberal prime minister whose government famously urged Eastern European “men in sheepskin coats” to settle the West, was in the broadest sense pro-immigration. But he also did his best to keep the Chinese out of Canada.

William Lyon Mackenzie King, the long-serving prime minister who steered Canada through the Second World War was, in the mid-1930s, a secret fan of Adolph Hitler’s labour relations policies.

Under King, Canada was extremely reluctant to take in Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler.

J.S. Woodsworth, the first leader of what is now the New Democratic Party, was a fierce advocate of workers’ rights. But his 1909 book on immigration, Strangers Within our Gates, uses race-based language that would get him expelled from today’s NDP.

Robert Borden is generally regarded as a nation-builder who steered Canada through the First World War and into international prominence. But he can also be seen as a nation-buster, whose decision to introduce conscription fanned animosity between English and French Canada.

Even modern politicians are complicated. Pierre Trudeau was at one level a civil libertarian whose efforts led to Canada’s constitutionally entrenched charter of rights and freedoms.

Yet he was also the man who, during the FLQ crisis of 1970, casually suspended civil rights, a move that led to the arrest without charge of almost 500 innocent people.

So who deserves to be honoured? Father of Confederation Hector-Louis Langevin apparently doesn’t. His name was removed from a prominent federal building earlier this year because, during one of Macdonald’s administrations, he had been put in charge of the residential school file.

Neither, it seems, does Clara Brett Martin. In 1989, an Ontario government building was named after Martin, the first woman admitted to the bar in the British Empire.

But a year later, her name was removed from the building. Someone had found a 1915 letter she wrote in which she made anti-Semitic slurs.

For now Macdonald is safe. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has pledged not to strip his name from any schools. But I’d be surprised if any new government buildings were named after the first prime minister.

In fact, it might be less controversial to avoid naming anything after anybody. At least until we can find someone who will remain flawless for all time.

Thomas Walkom is a national affairs writer.

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