Premier Kathleen Wynne has weighed in on a controversial proposal by the Ontario elementary teachers union to rename public schools bearing the name of Canada's first prime minister, saying it has "missed the mark."
The remarks come one day after the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario made headlines with a proposal to strip public schools of John A. Macdonald's name.
The proposal drew the praise of some who agreed that naming schools after Macdonald was tantamount to celebrating his controversial legacy, and the ire of many others — including former foreign minister John Baird — as "political correctness on steroids."
- Ontario teachers' union wants Sir John A. Macdonald's name stripped from public schools
- AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde supports removing John A. Macdonald's name from Ontario schools
- Ontario teacher explains why Sir John A. Macdonald's name should be stripped from public schools
In her statement Thursday, Wynne acknowledged the union is "coming from a good place," but said she disagreed Macdonald's name should be removed from schools in the province.
'We need to teach our children the full history'
The debate over whether to remove Macdonald's name from the schools comes as legislators south of the border mull the removal of Confederate statues seen by many as painful reminders of some of the darker moments in American history.
Of the more than 5,000 schools in Ontario, nine are specifically named "Sir John A. Macdonald." Numerous other ones contain "Macdonald" in their name, but the Ministry of Education could not confirm if they necessarily refer to Canada's first prime minister.
"Sir John A. Macdonald was far from perfect," said the premier. "Certainly his decision to open residential schools was among the most problematic in our history."
But, she added, he remains an important part of history.
"We need to teach our children the full history of this country — including colonialism, our Indigenous peoples and their history and about what our founders did to create Canada and make it the country it is today.... We need to understand our history, the good along with the bad."
Earlier in the day, Patrick Brown, leader of Ontario's Progressive Conservative party, tweeted that he was proud public schools bear the names of "Canada's founding fathers," and called on Wynne for her response.
I'm proud to have the names of Canada's founding fathers on Ontario schools. Where does @kathleen_wynne stand on this?— @brownbarrie
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, meanwhile, offered a caution to the teachers' union to "beware the slippery slope of removing historic names."
In a statement posted to Facebook Thursday, Wall said that while some of Macdonald's words were reprehensible — he used the word "savages" to describe Indigenous peoples, the premier said — they were the "stuff of daily parlance then."
"Is it not a short walk between the calls to remove the name of our first prime minister from schools, to the closing of the Lincoln memorial in Washington D.C., or the removal of Tommy Douglas' name from a Saskatoon school?" he asked.
The comments echo recent remarks by U.S. President Donald Trump about the removal of statues commemorating Confederate-era figures.
"Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues … Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson — who's next, Washington, Jefferson?" Trump said.
National chief supports motion
Perry Bellegarde, national chief for the Assembly of First Nations, said he supported the motion by the union.
"How would you feel if you were a young First Nations person going to that school, knowing full well that Sir John A. Macdonald was one of the architects behind the residential school system?" Bellegarde asked in an interview on Thursday. "You wouldn't want to feel good about attending that school, would you? Because I wouldn't."
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, which involved dispossessing land from the Indigenous communities who lived along it.
"When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read or write," Macdonald said in a speech to the House of Commons in 1883.
Felipe Pareja, a teacher in Peel region just west of Toronto, was behind the motion.
He acknowledged Macdonald's contribution to Canada's formation, but said keeping his name on schools could bring negative feelings for Indigenous students at a time when Canada is grappling with the legacy of its treatment of Indigenous communities.
"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," Pareja said Wednesday, maintaining Macdonald had "central role as the architect of really what was genocide of Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island."
Many Indigenous groups refer to North America as Turtle Island.
The teachers union has no power to remove Macdonald's name from the schools, but said Wednesday that it hopes school boards will be open to the idea.
Asked whether it would consider the proposal, the Peel District School Board said it would review the matter with its Indigenous leaders, staff, trustees, partners and the Ontario Public School Boards' Association.
"We are reaching out to the Ministry of Education as well for their insights as we appreciate this is a provincial matter and an important dialogue that will happen across the province," board spokesperson Carla Pereira said.
There is just one school in Peel that bears Macdonald's name.
Durham region also has one school named after John A. Macdonald. Its board says it will consult with trustees and the provincial association on how to respond to the union's position.
The Toronto District School Board said the matter of renaming schools hadn't come before its board and that any such decision would involve consulting with the school community.