Analysis

Named for our leaders: There's a school for (nearly) every prime minister

By one metric, Joe Clark is our greatest living prime minister. He seems to be the only one of the group to have a school named for him.

Will debates over John A. Macdonald's legacy end the tradition of naming schools for politicians?

Joe Clark acknowledges party members' cheers as he wins the Progressive Conservative leadership race in 1976. Clark is the only living former prime minister who has a school named for him in Canada. (Canadian Press)

By one metric, Joe Clark is our greatest living former prime minister.

He seems to be the only one of the group — which includes John Turner, Brian Mulroney, Kim Campbell, Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper — to have a school in Canada named after him.

École Joe Clark School, offering classes in English and French from junior kindergarten to Grade 5, is located in Clark's hometown of High River, Alta. The school mascot is a bronco.

That there is a Joe Clark School somewhere is to be expected: every earlier prime minister seems to have had at least one school named for them.

It's just that no one who ruled after July 1984 — when Pierre Trudeau resigned — has yet received the honour.

Is it possible that we've just had a historically crummy run of prime ministers since then?

Or, is it simply too soon?

Regardless, could we moving toward a day in which prime ministers should not expect to have their name on the front of a school?

There are, now debatably, several schools named for John A. Macdonald, and the most celebrated names in prime ministerial history seem to have been rewarded with more than one namesake institution.

Wilfrid Laurier has his own school board in Quebec and a university in Waterloo, Ont. John Diefenbaker has a high school in Calgary and elementary schools in Toronto and Richmond, B.C.

A survey in 2013 found 12 schools named for Lester B. Pearson, three more than for Pierre Trudeau.
A manatee sticks its head out of the water at Miami Seaquarium in 2014. In Florida, more schools are named for this noble beast than for George Washington. (Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press)

Those honours are perhaps to be expected. Unofficially, it seems that if you spent any time as prime minister, you get a school.

Alexander Mackenize, the second prime minister, has a high school in Sarnia, Ont., the city he represented as an MP. John Abbott, who became Canada's third prime minister when Macdonald died, has a college in Montreal.

John Thompson, who followed Abbott, is the namesake for a junior high school in Edmonton. Mackenzie Bowell, who followed Thompson, was honoured with a school in Belleville, Ont., though it has closed (according to a news report, some of its students were transferred to a school named for Macdonald). 

R.B. Bennett, though remembered critically for his handling of the Great Depression, had a school in Calgary, though it has also closed.

Local connections likely motivate some namings. So there might eventually be hometown schools for Mulroney in Baie-Comeau, Que., Chrétien in Shawinigan, Que., or Martin in Windsor, Ont.

Mulroney has an institute named for him at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, but he had to help raise significant sums to establish it.

Getting past the unpleasantness

It's also possible, if a pity, that no such naming will take place until each of those former prime ministers has died. Time heals most wounds, and obituaries tend to accentuate the most flattering bits. After that, it's easier to appreciate a politician's achievements and never mind the unpleasantness of, say, a sponsorship scandal or one's dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber.

Clark might benefit from having been prime minister for only nine months in 1979-80. If he'd occupied the office for much longer, he or his government might have done more to embarrass themselves.

Almost all political careers end in failure, and in the immediate aftermath such honours can seem ridiculous. Consider, for instance, the debate and mockery that ensued when someone suggested naming Calgary's airport for Harper after the 2015 election.

Were someone to announce plans next week for a Stephen J. Harper Public School, there would no doubt be snide questions about the school's science curriculum.
The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario want to rename schools that bear Sir John A. Macdonald's name because of his treatment of Indigenous people, a move that has sparked a contentious debate over how Canadian history is dealt with in schools 2:32

Even 25 years from now, it might matter where such a school would be located. As late as 2010, there was controversy over naming a school in Calgary for Pierre Trudeau.

Even while recent prime ministers have gone without the honour, schools have been named for former governors general Adrienne Clarkson and Michaëlle Jean.

Will we stop naming schools after PMs?

In Macdonald's case, mind you, only time has actually allowed an argument against him to be built. And if his name goes, his supporters might ask why those who continued his policies are allowed to have schools. 

Recent, current and future prime ministers might also be condemned for other reasons — failing to act to combat climate change, for instance.

In these more cynical — or realistic — times, we might simply move away from naming schools for politicians.

Research published a decade ago in the United States found evidence communities were moving away from naming schools for presidents. In Florida, the number of schools named for manatees apparently outnumbered the schools named for George Washington. (In fairness, the manatee is a very noble beast.)

It may provoke a debate over whether that person is worthy of emulation.— Report on Florida schools

"The difficulty with naming a school after a person is that it may provoke a debate over whether that person is worthy of emulation," the authors wrote.

There are certainly other admirable figures whose names could be used instead: astronauts, doctors, teachers, hard-working and humble political journalists. Those whose mistakes and failings are less prominent.

There would still be history books for prime ministers.

Or, in maintaining the tradition of naming schools for them, we could decide that each prime minister, simply by holding the office, made a meaningful contribution to the country, as imperfect or outright flawed as that contribution may have been.

That they were a symbol of public service and democracy. That even their mistakes are worthy of commemoration.

That, even if just for a matter of months, they personified the essential politics of the country.

The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario has approved a motion calling for John A. Macdonald's name to be removed from all schools in the province. Mississauga teacher Felipe Pareja tells guest host Jim Brown why he introduced the motion. 7:12

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail.

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