As CBE explores renaming Sir John A. Macdonald School, historian details former PM's 'ruthless' history

The Calgary Board of Education announced last week it would form a name review committee for Sir John A. Macdonald School, noting the “complex history attached to the name.”

Calgary Board of Education reviewing the name after pushback from community

The CBE says it will put together a seven-person committee to help decide whether to rename Sir John A. Macdonald School. (Albert Woo)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

While completing a school assignment last year, Makena Halvorsen — a Grade 8 student at Sir John A. Macdonald School in northwest Calgary — looked into the history of Canada's first prime minister.

She researched his efforts to unite the country, his role in the creation of the Canadian Pacific Railway and his treatment of Indigenous people.

After compiling the information, Halvorsen came to a conclusion.

"Looking at it, to me, it looks like the negative outweighed the positive," she said on the Calgary Eyeopener on Tuesday.

Halvorsen is one of several students encouraging Sir John A. Macdonald School to change its name.

The Calgary Board of Education (CBE) announced Monday in a news release it would form a name review committee for the school, noting the "complex history attached to the name."

The move comes after two other schools in the city changed their names last year. In June, Langevin School became Riverside School, and in October, Bishop Grandin High School became Our Lady of the Rockies School. 

Both of the schools' former namesakes played a role in the creation of the residential school system, which came under increased scrutiny last year after the discovery of the remains of children at former residential schools across the country.

In March, community members held a day of art action outside Sir John A. Macdonald School to raise awareness of their efforts to change the school's name. (Albert Woo)

The advocacy at those schools inspired Sir John A. Macdonald School students to make a change of their own.

"There's some people who don't agree, but they still respect my opinion and I respect theirs," Halvorsen said.

"I want lots of discussions on why I want to change the school so that people can understand."

The history of Sir John A. Macdonald 

Local historian Carmen Nielson shares the students' concerns over their school's name. 

She wrote her own letter to the CBE in late April encouraging the board to consider changing it.

Nielsen, who is also an associate professor at Mount Royal University, specializes in political history during the period of Macdonald's tenure as prime minister.

She said even then, people called him "ruthless."

"It was his administration in 1879 that signed off on official government involvement in not only supporting but expanding the residential school system," she said on The Homestretch on Monday.

"He stood up … and promised that he would maintain funding at a level that would keep First Nations on the verge of starvation. We know that the results of that starvation policy created widespread disease and death."

Macdonald was criticized for these policies at the time, Nielson says, and other politicians were horrified when he'd stand up in Parliament and talk about preserving the "Aryan" character of British North America.

"I would say that there is generally consensus amongst Canadian historians that Sir John A. MacDonald is not someone who is appropriate to be memorialized," Neilson said.

Students wrote messages outside Sir John A. Macdonald School in March. Many of them want the Calgary Board of Education to change the school's name because of the former prime minister's involvement in the residential school system. (Albert Woo)

The move to rename schools and landmarks honouring leaders involved in the residential school system isn't supported by all. 

Last June, during discussions around changing Langevin School's name, Premier Jason Kenney said Canada's historical figures are worth celebrating.

"It is an imperfect country, but it is still a great country, just as John Macdonald was an imperfect man but was still a great leader," he said.

"If we want to get into cancelling every figure in our history who took positions on issues at the time that we now judge harshly, and rightly in historical retrospect … then I think almost the entire founding leadership of our country gets cancelled."

The move toward reconciliation 

Michelle Robinson with Calgary's Reconciliation Action Group — which has advocated for the change of names at Langevin and John A. Macdonald schools — says she believes some Canadians just don't know the complicated history of some of their former leaders.

"Once you know, you definitely want these things changed," she said.

"If you have any Indigenous understanding, then you actually do know how problematic they were."

The announcement of the CBE's committee is disappointing for Robinson, who says the school has had an opportunity to make a change since 2015, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its final report.

"For folks like myself who are legitimate folks dealing with intergenerational trauma from Indian residential schools, we're trying to do the positive work."

The CBE says it will put together a seven-person committee to help the board come to a decision on the name change.

Robinson says at least one of those people should be Indigenous.

"I know that would be a very toxic work environment for whoever it is that they did choose to appoint, but at the end of the day, we shouldn't be making these decisions without Indigenous people at the table."

Meantime, it's students like Halvorsen who continue to carry the cause forward. With help from her father and others, they've started a letter writing campaign and launched a petition.

For Robinson, this is what reconciliation looks like.

"Every single Canadian has a responsibility."

With files from Lisa Robinson and Dave Waddell