As U.S. legislators mull the removal of statues seen by many as painful reminders of the darker moments in American history, a similar debate is playing out in Ontario over whether public schools should bear the names of Canadian figures associated with this country's legacy around the treatment of Indigenous communities.

That debate hit the floor of a meeting by the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario days ago, ending with a resolution to urge school boards across the province to consider removing the name of Canada's first prime minister — Sir John A. Macdonald — from public schools.

Felipe Pareja, a French teacher in Peel region just west of Toronto, is behind the motion.

Pareja says the decision was by no means unanimous, but that it passed by a substantial margin.

No opportunity for asterisks

Widely lauded as the father of Confederation, Macdonald is credited with having joined the eastern and western parts of Canada together through the creation of a transcontinental railway.

Pareja says he acknowledges Macdonald's foundational role in the country's Confederation, but that having public schools bearing his name leaves out his role in the starvation of Indigenous people along the railway to facilitate its construction — along with Macdonald's "central role as the architect of, really, what was genocide of Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island."

The Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario passed a motion calling on school districts to examine and rename schools and buildings named after Canada’s first PM6:51

"At no point when it came time to learn about the Confederation of Canada, the Fathers of Confederation, was any of this part our history," he said, recalling his own time in the elementary school system. 

David Mastin, president of the ETFO's Durham local, agrees.

"When you name a school after someone, there's an honour that's bestowed," Mastin told CBC News. "If there was a full opportunity to have alongside the name of Sir John A. Macdonald a little asterisk that said, 'Oh yes, he did so and so...' But that doesn't happen."

Tori Cress, an activist with Idle No More, sees the vote as a positive step.

Tori Cress

Tori Cress is an activist with Idle No More. (Stephanie Matteis)

"I like to see school teachers and educators following this kind of move to being inclusive with their students and be proud to be Canadian in a way that's not honouring people that destroyed other races," Cress said.

"There is a place for these people — maybe not in monuments or statues and school place names, but the history books, museums."

Union 'needs a lesson on how to teach history'

But the move isn't without pushback.

Former foreign affairs minister John Baird called it "political correctness on steroids."

"It's one of the most crazy and ridiculous things I've ever heard — just simply trying to erase Canadian history in the guise of an extreme and radical political correctness. I can't believe the average teacher in Ontario would support this type of ridiculous idea," said Baird, who was also a supporter of renaming the Ottawa River Parkway the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway.

Baird says he also didn't support Justin Trudeau's recent decision to rename the Langevin Block, the building that houses the Prime Minister's Office and was named after Hector-Louis Langevin, a strong proponent of the residential school system.

Trudeau Langevin 20170621

The federal government renamed the Langevin Block building, which sits across from Parliament Hill, out of respect for Indigenous people. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"In Ottawa, we honour our former leaders, whether it's John A. Macdonald or Wilfrid Laurier — great Canadians who helped build a fantastic and prosperous country," he said.

Earlier this month, CBC News obtained an internal federal government briefing note raising doubts about Hector-Louis Langevin's role as architect of the residential school system.

Baird says he sees no parallel behind the debate in this country with the one swirling around the removal of Confederate statues in the United States. 

For his part, Conservative MP Erin O'Toole, who represents Durham, called the decision "embarrassing." 

But Pareja responded that it's precisely because teachers are cognizant of Canada's history that they voted in favour of the motion. "It's the furthest thing from embarrassing."

Asked if a similar decision should apply to Sir Wilfrid Laurier, associated with boosting the Chinese head tax, Pareja said he wasn't sure. 

"This is a part of a broader conversation about what kinds of things we can do as a society to truly reconcile ourselves as settlers to this land with the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island."

The teachers union has no power to remove Macdonald's name from the schools, but says it hopes school boards will be open to the idea. 

"It's a long road that we need to travel, but it's one that we need to travel," said Pareja. "I would hope that school boards would join us along this path."

The ETFO's decision comes just over a month after a student-led campaign sprang up at Toronto's Ryerson University calling on the school to change its name out of respect for residential school survivors.

Sarah Dennis-Kooji

Sarah Dennis-Kooji speaks for the group pushing for Ryerson University to change its name and says removing Macdonald's name from public schools is a step in the right direction. (CBC)



The university is named after Egerton Ryerson, an education advocate who believed in a separate education systems for Indigenous and non-Indigenous children. In a 2010 document, the university says it is "proud of our history and of the contribution our namesake" but also notes that Ryerson's beliefs on separate education played a part in the creation of what would become the residential school system.

Sarah Dennis-Kooji speaks for the group pushing for Ryerson's name to be changed. She says removing Macdonald's name from public schools is a step in the right direction. 

"Arguably he did not bring this country together. It was Indigenous people who brought this country together... We're the reason why settlers were able to survive in this country in the first place."

Kooji suggests trying to "create balance" by naming  institutions for foundational Indigenous figures.

With files from As it Happens, Power and Politics, CBC Ottawa