FSIN Vice-Chief backs call to remove John A. Macdonald's name from Ontario schools

Historians say the role of Canada's first prime minister in the subjugation of Canada's Indigenous people needs to be discussed in light of a call to rename schools named for John A. Macdonald.

Canada's 1st prime minister played large role in subjugating Indigenous people, say historians

Woman speaking to reporters,
'I think it’s a good conversation, and I think not only John A. Macdonald but we should look at others,' says FSIN Vice-Chief Heather Bear. (Brandon Harder/CBC)

Heather Bear, vice-chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations threw her support behind a motion calling for the removal of John A. Macdonald's name from Ontario public schools.

"His condescending attitudes made it acceptable for Indigenous people to be treated like less than humans," she said.

The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario passed a resolution this week urging school boards across the province to consider removing the name of Canada's first prime minister from public schools because of his policies that marginalized Indigenous people.

"We were not allowed to assemble, the pass system was implemented in various parts of the country, Indigenous people were prevented from hiring legal representation in court," said Bear.

While some Canadians may not know about the attitudes of Canada's first prime minister, Bear felt the same attitudes in public school.

"I experienced what it was to be spoken about in very barbaric ways. The general public needs to know the history, and I think there would be a better understanding of the dark history, and the dark, difficult past Indigenous people have had to face because of these kinds of attitudes and statements that have been entrenched in our society's thinking of Indigenous people."

Perry Bellegarde, national chief for the Assembly of First Nations, has said he supports the motion calling for the schools' renaming as well and that he's encouraged that Canadians are having this discussion.

Played role in creating a 'dysfunctional country'

James Daschuk, an associate professor at the University of Regina and author of Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, says there's no doubt Macdonald is one of the central figures in the history of Canada.

"But … what we haven't heard that much about in the past was Macdonald's role in the subjugation of First Nations people," he said.

University of Regina's James Daschuk, author of Clearing the Plains, says students in the past didn't hear much about Macdonald's role in the subjugation of First Nations people.

He said when Macdonald was re-elected in 1878, he took on the roles of both prime minister and minister of Indian Affairs during a decade that was "formative" for the new country's relationship with Indigenous people.

"Under his watch we had a managed famine, we had the imposition of a pass system in which 'treaty Indians,' using the old legal term, could not leave their reserves without written permission from a white official. Macdonald was also instrumental in setting up the Indian residential school system."

Daschuk said the communities where the schools are located should have a discussion about Macdonald's role "in the creation of our country, and the creation of kind of the dysfunctional country we're still living in today."

He added there has been talk about changing the name of Dewdney Avenue in Regina. Edgar Dewdney was tasked with implementing Macdonald's policies "and if there's a local villain in the piece, he's certainly it."

Brad Wall calls motion "a slippery slope"

Premier Brad Wall called the Ontario motion to remove Macdonald's name from public schools "a slippery slope … that threatens the preservation of all our history."

In a Facebook note, Wall acknowledged Macdonald used the word "savages" to describe Indigenous peoples, but he also lists completing the railway across Canada and the establishment of the North West Mounted Police as Macdonald's accomplishments

Wall writes Macdonald's "words and some of his actions are reprehensible, even though conventional to the period."
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall wrote a Facebook note discouraging changing the name of schools in Ontario named after John A. Macdonald. (CBC)

He mentions Abraham Lincoln and Tommy Douglas and opinions they expressed — on racial equality and eugenics, respectively — that reflected their time.

He writes "let us use these namesakes for the opportunity to teach our history, to remember the achievements of those who have went before. And yes, let us also resolve to never forget their mistakes; their misguided and dangerous beliefs to which many, if not the majority, once clung."

Expression of values

Shirley Tillotson, a professor of history at Dalhousie University, agreed it's clear Macdonald's nation building included "moving the Indigenous people out of the way of the project of nation building."

On whether changing a school's name is a slippery slope that threatens history, she said "commemoration is always an expression of contemporary values, and if we want to, after deliberation and organizational discussion, take a step that expresses our values, we should."

She added that the problems that need fixing lie in the legacy of the systems Macdonald had a hand in creating — "how Indigenous people are treated in emergency rooms in hospitals or by the social welfare apparatus or hiring committees. Changing the names of schools won't fix those problems."

The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario has no power to remove Macdonald's name from schools, but has said it hopes Ontario school boards will be open to the idea.