Sir John A. Macdonald name debate: should we 'sanitize our history?'

Two London MPs have waded into the turbulent debate over whether to remove the name of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister, from all public schools.

A school in London is named after the former Prime Minister, but the school board has no plans to change it.

'Old Tomorrow,' 'The Old Chieftan,' over his political lifetime Sir John A. MacDonald earned many nicknames, but now some say his views and deeds aren't worthy of putting any of them on public schools in this country. (Library and Archives Canada)

London's Sir John A. Macdonald Public School is keeping its name for now, said Thames Valley District school board chair Matt Reid.

"I have not actually received any emails from constituents or trustees wanting to revisit the naming of Sir John A. Macdonald," he said.

A resolution earlier this week from the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario urged school boards across Ontario to consider removing Macdonald's name from public schools.

"No person, no human being is perfect and we have to recognize that there are flaws in everyone, but currently we are moving forward with status quo," said Reid.

Uniter or bigot?

While he's credited as being a broad-minded leader capable of uniting a fractured country made up of English and French speakers as well as Protestants and Catholics, he was far more narrow-minded when it came to Canada's indigenous people. 

Macdonald believed First Nations people could only survive in a modern Canada if they gave up their language, culture and religious beliefs in favour of adopting white customs. He also used starvation as a means to force indigenous people off of their traditional lands and onto reserves. 

CBC Radio's Afternoon Drive spoke with Jay Soule, an indigenous artist from the Chippewa of the Thames First Nation. Soule has been critical of Macdonald in some of his work, including his 'Not So Funny Money' project, meant to raise awareness about the mistreatment of First Nations people during Confederation.

"His legislation lead to the Indian Act, which allowed indigenous people to be removed and put onto reservations," said Soule.

"We shouldn't celebrate this. Nobody should celebrate this."

London MP Kate talks about the controversy over whether to 0:59

Because of Macdonald's legacy, many are debating whether Macdonald's name should be on public schools across the province, including Sir John A. Macdonald Public School in London. 

We asked two London MPs for their thoughts on the debate on whether to drop the name of Canada's first prime minister. 

Kate Young

Peter Fragiskatos with his take on the Sir John A. name debate 1:55

Kate Young called the debate "an interesting discussion we need to have," but fell short of saying whether the name should stay or go. 

Peter Fragiskatos

"We have to be careful," Peter Fragiskatos said. "My individual view on this is that it is perfectly fine and reasonable to continue to have schools named after Sir John A. Macdonald."

"We also ought to make sure we are recognizing human rights activists in for example First Nations communities and Métis communities."

"I don't think we'll get very far if we sanitize our history," he said.  

Schools in London named after key architects of Canada's residential school system:

  • Sir John A. Macdonald Public School
  • Ryerson Public School, named after Egerton Ryerson

Schools in London named after prominent indigenous leaders:

  • Tecumseh Public School, named after a Shawnee war chief 

Do you know any other schools in London named after controversial historical figures?

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