In Response to Bruce Pardy: Countering Myths and Explaining Macdonald’s Legacy

Luke Sabourin is a 3rd year student at Queen’s University Faculty of Law.

John A. Macdonald

The Queen’s University Faculty of Law has recently become something of a flashpoint in the ongoing “culture war” over historical figures in Canada and the world. On September 18, 2020, the faculty board of the law school held a non-binding vote to change the name of the law building. The non-binding vote went 29–5–3 in favour of changing the current name, Sir John A. Macdonald Hall, to something else. (Note: Since the time of writing, the Queen’s University Board of Trustees has officially approved the name change.)

This has caused an uproar in some circles. For example, the Conservative Party of Canada has taken a firm stance against the vote, calling it part of the “cancel culture” trend. Aside from the usual politicking on these issues, there has also been some intellectual backlash from inside the Faculty of Law itself.

Professor Bruce Pardy recently wrote an article in the National Post titled “In Universities, the Revolution is Now Complete.” In Professor Pardy’s eyes, the vote to remove John A. Macdonald’s name is the latest step in the “cultural revolution currently underway in Canada.” In this brief essay, I take issue with Professor Pardy’s arguments and provide a more nuanced understanding of Sir John A’s legacy.

Professor Pardy starts well. There is a scary quote from Orwell: “Who controls the present controls the past, Orwell tells us, and who controls the past controls the future.” There is talk of a new revolution, and how the “attitudes of the living” are the new targets. Fair enough: at this point, Pardy could have made an interesting and detailed argument about the problems with historical revisionism. No such luck.

Instead, we get a scattershot collection of half-baked ideas and buzzwords. Facts will not matter, Pardy says. To show the reader how how firmly he believes facts do not matter, Pardy proceeds to us how Macdonald was actually a great saviour of Indigenous peoples-he sent them aid, after all! And of course, Macdonald was a johnny-come-lately to residential school policy, so that too absolves him of historical responsibility. I guess when you show up late to the genocide it doesn’t count. Lucky for those Germans who joined the Nazi Party in 1942 and not 1933.

As a student of history, I find this paragraph particularly insulting, cherry-picking, and absurd. The Macdonald government was in power from 1867–1891, with a short five-year break from 1873–1878 after Macdonald was kicked out for wanton corruption. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission writes: “The new dominion lost no time in beginning its westward expansion. The parliament was elected in August 1867, and, in December, it adopted a measure calling on Britain to unite the Hudson’s Bay Company territory with Canada. Colonizing the “North-West” — as this territory came to be known — meant colonizing the over 40,000 Indigenous people who lived there.” Macdonald himself viewed the government’s policy towards Indigenous people as one of “guardianship as of persons underage, incapable of the management of their own affairs.” To Macdonald, Indigenous people were a lesser people. The Macdonald government introduced several laws and policies to assimilate Indigenous people into Canadian society. The Indian Act, introduced in 1876 but faithfully adhered to and expanded by the Macdonald government, was the key piece of legislation that sought to disenfranchise, demean, and ultimately assimilate Indigenous people into white society. Moreover, the Macdonald government carried out a brutal destruction of the North-West Rebellion, hanged Louis Riel, went back on their treaty obligations, and more. The list of anti-Indigenous and genocidal policies enacted and pursued by the Macdonald government is so long as to defy belief at times. As well, the apparently saintly relief Pardy discusses was a treaty obligation given up unwillingly by the Macdonald government. “It was cheaper to feed them than to fight them,” according to Macdonald. Hardly the stuff of altruism Pardy makes it out to be. Never mind the fact that the Macdonald government also used the threat of withdrawing food aid and relief to bend Indigenous nations to their will. But facts don’t matter, so I guess we can ignore all that history.

After this trip into historical revisionism, Pardy tells us that the only natural successors to Macdonald are everybody’s favourite 20th-century bugbears, Mao, Lenin, and Castro (why not Stalin why we’re at it?). Again, this is a strange claim. How does one get from rethinking Macdonald’s legacy to erecting statues of bloodthirsty dictators in Canada, a liberal democracy? Pardy doesn’t tell us, but just relies on hyperbole and fear to see this argument through.

Pardy then jumps right into the Jordan Peterson world of fighting cultural marxism, intersectionality, and critical theory. According to Pardy, the real reason Macdonald’s legacy is undergoing some rethinking is because of those nefarious liberal eggheads in the universities who demand white male blood. These are the real people pulling the strings behind the scenes at Queen’s Law, apparently. Never mind the fact that many people on the faculty board are white males, and never mind the fact that the board comes from all walks of life and backgrounds. (Note: The same is true about the University’s Board of Trustees).

Pardy then ends his essay with two paragraphs railing against critical theory, intersectionality, and calling for traditional Canadian values. I am not going to bother discussing these paragraphs because I do not feel they are at all relevant to why we are talking about Macdonald.

An Alternate View

I think Pardy is right to call for different viewpoints. It is a distinct privilege to live in a liberal democracy where people can have different views and hold them freely. Like Pardy, I am a firm believer in freedom of expression and a firm believer that it is a cornerstone of Canadian society.

However, Pardy misses the mark when he says this is the first step in an Orwellian revolution. It is not 1984 in Canada. No one is saying we need to stop learning about Macdonald or literally erase him from history books. I would agree that to do so tyrannical, insane, and illiberal.

On the other hand, a building name is a great honour. The question is whether it is right to honour Macdonald, not whether it is right to learn about Macdonald. As with any hot issue these days the nuance gets lost in the conversation. I think it can be said a building name is different from a statue, for instance. A statue can have a plaque, provide context, be placed in a museum, and more. A building name or some similar honour has no context, and no ability to explain a person’s record. It simply says this person was great and worthy of a building-no ifs, ands, or buts!

It cannot be denied that Macdonald’s efforts to secure Confederation make him a giant of Canadian history. However, it is a sign of a healthy democracy that we can engage in rethinking whom we honour and whom we hold up as great examples of our nation’s ideals. Is Macdonald really the man to celebrate in that regard? I do not think so. It is not Macdonald’s attitudes that make him unworthy of the high and uncritical praise Pardy gives him. It is Macdonald’s anti-indigenous policies, his drunkenness, and his corruption that make him a questionable figure to bestow such high, uncritical, and unthinking praise on. Rethinking Macdonald’s legacy is not the one-sided and blind process Pardy makes it out to be. Rather, it is an affirmation of nuance, reason, and rationality to question and truly understand one of our leading historical figures.

It is a fact of human history that we update our views of people and institutions from time to time. New facts and different frames of understanding come and go. 500 years ago the Catholic Church was the supreme arbiter of truth and righteousness in society. Yet who today would say the same thing? 105 years ago Canadians went to fight and die for King George V in the trenches of Flanders. Yet who today remembers George V in Canada? Just because someone or something has been honoured for a long time does not necessarily mean it should continue to be. In my humble opinion, we should strive to avoid these types of sacred cows in our society. It prevents positive change. Human society would never get anywhere if we did not grow our understanding of people, institutions, and ideas over time. If that were true we would be in the dark ages!

Values change, and most often (but not always) for the better. 50 years ago the idea of gay marriage, legalized abortion and euthanasia were abhorrent. Over time, we shifted our understanding of these things. People began to realize that perhaps gay people are just like straight people and can actually have a loving and healthy relationship with the same sex. People are now realizing that perhaps John A. Macdonald was not the great and untainted person our history books made him out to be. Every generation honours different people, and different values. The fact that this change has occurred through the democratic process further indicates that there has been a reasoned reckoning with this issue. Indeed, that process provides us with a means of debate and coming to a conclusion on an issue. Pardy may not like it, but democracy, a cornerstone of “western values” he claims to defend, works like that.

Finally, who is the real loser in this situation? What is the damage done? I agree that we would all be intellectually diminished and oppressed if suddenly we were taught that Macdonald never existed. No one is saying that. In this case, I am not sure who the losers are. If anything we gain from the knowledge that our Indigenous peers can work and study in a building not named after a person with a questionable and at times insidious legacy. After all, how can we work towards reconciliation when one side continues to unthinkingly honour the villain of the other side? If this is the revolution, I welcome it.

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