The push among social justice advocates to erase the names of those involved in unsavoury parts of Canadian history is a misguided way to deal with our past.

The latest example is from the Ryerson Students' Union and the Indigenous Students Association — two groups that want to see the school change its name because its namesake, Egerton Ryerson, is believed to have been instrumental in developing Canada's residential school policies.

The demand comes after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Langevin Block would be renamed the "Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council," and Calgary city council voted to rename Langevin Bridge as "Reconciliation Bridge" because of Hector-Louis Langevin's involvement in the residential school system.

langevin block ottawa parliament hill june 21 2017

Trudeau changed the name of Langevin Block to the "Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council," (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

While these name changes might offer symbolic victories for advocates, they are actually a rather ineffective way of grappling with the racist and otherwise oppressive policies from Canada's past. Indeed, by stripping a building or institution of its name, it eliminates an opportunity to talk about pre-Confederation Canada's involvement in slavery, residential schools and restrictive immigration policies. Institutions can simply "scrub" themselves of this history and absolve themselves of any responsibility for talking about it.

If given a new name, Ryerson University, for example, would no longer have to make a statement about or acknowledge Egerton Ryerson's legacy and influence. The conversation would disappear.

What's more, by singling out people such as Egerton Ryerson or Hector-Louis Langevin as influencers in the creation of residential schools, advocates are — inadvertently or intentionally — blaming them for the policies, rather than seeing them as part of a system of politicians, civil servants and voters who, together, implemented and supported these policies.  

Canada's fraught history

Arguably, every Canadian government has been responsible for the functioning and continuity of the residential school system, up until the last school was closed in 1996. Displacing Indigenous people onto reserves and placing their children in residential schools was a way to facilitate European and non-European settlement across Canada.

As for slavery: slaves fulfilled a labour shortage in New France, and the "gifting" of slaves was an integral part of building alliances between Indigenous peoples and European settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries.

And in restricting immigration and often voting to Europeans, descendants of Canada's earliest immigrants were best placed to profit from Canada's eventual prosperity.

Prime ministers John A. Macdonald, Wilfrid Laurier, Robert Borden, Arthur Meighen, Richard Bennett and Louis St-Laurent all, in one way or another, implemented or advocated for restrictive immigration policies of various ethnic, religious and political groups. The founder of McGill University, James McGill, was a slave owner.

Important actors in these policies should not be ignored. Rather, they should be publicly acknowledged — and discussed, and evaluated — because they paved the way for contemporary Canadian society. Indeed, there are far better ways to grapple with their legacies than to erase their names.

Historical acknowledgements

The easiest would be for institutions to make historical acknowledgements in the same vein as land acknowledgements before ceremonies and events: Ryerson University could implement a practice whereby speakers acknowledge that Egerton Ryerson provided intellectual reasoning for residential schools, for example. Similar acknowledgements could be made for slavery at McGill University.

Provinces could also update their K-12 school history curriculums to include greater discussions of slavery, colonialism, residential schools and restrictive immigration policies, while placing particular emphasis on the people and institutions involved in creating and perpetuating these practices.

Frustration with Canada's reluctance to truly reckon with its past historical wrongs is often what drives these petitions to change institutions' names. But it is imperative to properly acknowledge history; to acknowledge that many prestigious figures in Canadian history supported or partook in policies that caused great harm to black people, Indigenous people and would-be immigrants. And to acknowledge that these policies were central to the formation and functioning of the colonial and post-Confederation state.

Canada's history includes racist and oppressive policies. Canadians must embrace this past as part of our national story by acknowledging and discussing it, not by stripping away reminders.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.