In defence of Sir John A. Macdonald and his legacy

Reposting…. The Macdonald-Laurier Institute issued an important statement this day. Here is the media release and links to the pertinent articles. 

OTTAWA, ON (January 12, 2021): Those who see Canada’s history as little more than a shameful series of mistakes and failures have grown increasingly vocal in calling for the shunning of figures like our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. Macdonald, however, is owed not our contempt and derision, but our thoughtful measured thanks.

This is the message of more than 150 historians, policy experts, educators, business leaders, public figures, and thought leaders who have signed a joint statement in defence of Macdonald. This statement, a joint project of the Friends of Sir John A. Macdonald and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, ran today in the National Post as a full-page advertisement to coincide with Macdonald’s birthday. The statement can be read in full here.

Macdonald’s legacy is one of remarkable accomplishments. He, alongside his contemporaries like George-Étienne Cartier, set themselves the task of creating Canada, overcoming sectarian and linguistic strife and years of mistrust and political deadlock. He led the original Confederation effort, persuaded three other provinces to join, hugely expanded Canada’s territory, dissuaded American expansionism, brought economic stability, promoted unity between Canada’s language and religions factions, and much more.

The statement’s signatories also note that Macdonald, like all national leaders, had significant failures. These include his policy establishing the residential school system – a decision with a dark legacy that hangs over the country to this day.

Macdonald’s undoubted errors must be weighed, however, against “an impressive record of constitution and nation building, his reconciliation of contending cultures, languages and religions, his progressivism and his documented concern for and friendship with the Indigenous peoples of Canada,” suggest the authors.

According to Professor Patrice Dutil, one of the organizers of this initiative, “the sustained attacks on monuments to Sir John A. Macdonald and the attacks on his good name in schools and at Queen’s University in 2020 prompted many of us to simply say: Enough!” Professor Dutil goes on to note that while Macdonald’s record is hardly without blemish, “his policy failures must be weighed against his phenomenal policy successes. This effort, I hope, will become a turning point in how Canadian society examines Macdonald, and its past generally.”

As MLI Managing Director Brian Lee Crowley puts it:

“It is easy to criticize the past and the decisions made there. But it is a conceit of each and every generation that it alone is free from poor judgments, intellectual shortcomings and historical myopia.”

“Macdonald was neither angel nor devil, but a fallible human being who accomplished great things. Looking solely at our past errors is not the right standard by which to measure Canada or Sir John A. and their great achievements,” argues Crowley, who was one of the signatories of today’s statement.

The signatories urge governments, historians, teachers, media and other engaged Canadians to ensure everyone has access to a balanced view of our common past and the people who made us.

“Looking at our history with a dispassionate eye will give us a much clearer vision of the future,” they write. “Let’s start with Sir John A. Macdonald.”

IN DEFENCE OF SIR JOHN A. MACDONALD’S LEGACY:

Born on January 11th, 1815, he came here from his native Scotland in 1820. When he died 71 years later, Macdonald had become one of our greatest immigrant success stories, and the most respected and honoured Canadian of his era, having been Prime Minister for 19 of our first 24 years.

Sir John:

  • Re-imagined British North America as Canada and did so with courage, wisdom and integrity.
  • Dissuaded aggressive American expansionism. Macdonald, with Cartier, stared down opponents of Confederation in Quebec and Nova Scotia.
  • Acquired territory that made Canada the second largest country in the world.
  • Persuaded Manitobans, British Columbians and Prince Edward Islanders to join Confederation. Brought economic stability, with a farsighted Bank Act and an economic National Policy.
  • Spearheaded the building of a railway to the Pacific.
  • Championed unity between English and French, Protestant and Catholic.
  • Promoted freedom of expression and the press.
  • Launched policies that failed, as happens to all national leaders. This is certainly the case with the establishment of a national policy on Indian Residential Schools. Even though widely supported at the time, the schools had a dark legacy that hangs over the country to this day.
  • Made many other mistakes respecting Indigenous peoples and policies Canadians today strongly disapprove; we understand the frustrations of the descendants of those affected by these mistakes. Macdonald’s failures must, however, be weighed against an impressive record of constitution and nation building, his reconciliation of contending cultures, languages and religions, his progressivism and his documented concern for and friendship with the Indigenous peoples of Canada.

All Canadians deserve to hear the full story about Macdonald, the founding of Canada and Canadian history generally. Only then can we form reasoned views about that historical record.

We urge governments, historians, teachers, media and other engaged Canadians to ensure everyone has access to a balanced view of our common past and the people who made us. Looking at our history with a dispassionate eye will give us a much clearer vision of the future. Let’s start with Sir John A. Macdonald.

View all signatories here.

Chris George is an Ottawa-based government affairs advisor and wordsmith, president of CG&A COMMUNICATIONS. Contact: ChrisG.George@gmail.com

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