Politics

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde supports removing John A. Macdonald's name from Ontario schools

Perry Bellegarde, national chief for the Assembly of First Nations, supports a motion passed by the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario calling for Sir John A. Macdonald's name to be removed from schools in the province.

But not everyone agrees with suggestion made by elementary teachers' union

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde notes that Sir John A. Macdonald was one of the architects behind the residential school system. (Mark Taylor/Canadian Press)

Perry Bellegarde, national chief for the Assembly of First Nations, supports a motion passed by the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario calling for Sir John A. Macdonald's name to be removed from schools in the province.

"How would you feel if you were a young First Nations person going to that school, knowing full well that Sir John A. Macdonald was one of the architects behind the residential school system?" Bellegarde asked in an interview on Thursday. "You wouldn't want to feel good about attending that school, would you? Because I wouldn't."

Last week, delegates to the annual general meeting of ETFO passed a motion that called on school districts to "examine and rename schools and buildings named after Sir John A. Macdonald."

This would be done, the motion read, "in recognition of his central role as the architect of genocide against Indigenous peoples, the impact that this has on the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, parents, and educators, and the ways in which his namesake buildings can contribute to an unsafe space to learn and to work."

Bellegarde said he's "encouraged that Canadians are having this dialogue and conversation."

"And that it's not First Nations people asking for this to happen, that it's the elementary school teachers' federation asking for this to happen," he said. "To me it speaks that something's gotten to them in their hearts, minds and spirits, in terms of the impact that John A. Macdonald had on Indigenous peoples in Canada."

The ETFO motion follows the federal Liberal government's decision to remove the name of Hector-Louis Langevin from the building that houses the Prime Minister's Office.

David Mastin, Executive of the ETFO, discusses why the federation feels it’s important to remove Sir John A. Macdonald’s name from elementary schools 6:51

While Macdonald played a foundational role in the creation of Canada, led the country in its early years and famously built a railway to the West Coast, his policies toward Indigenous people have often been criticized, most notably in regards to the establishment of the residential schools system.

Bellegarde credits the truth and reconciliation commission on residential schools and its 94 "calls to action" with raising awareness of this part of Canadian history.

"Part of that reconciliation means facing the harsh, harsh truth and reality of our past here in Canada," he said. "And one of those truths is that leaders, prominent leaders like Sir John A. Macdonald, didn't have a respectful relationship with Indigenous peoples. He's the prime minister that helped launch that policy of assimilation via the residential schools."

The ETFO motion is not being met with universal agreement though.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne says teachers "missed the mark."

On Thursday, former federal Conservative cabinet minister John Baird said the motion was "just simply trying to erase Canadian history in the guise of an extreme and radical political correctness."

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall offered "words of caution" on Friday in a post on Facebook.

"This is a slippery slope, and one that threatens the preservation of all our history, that which commends as well as that which shames," he said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Heritage Minister Melanie Joly said the federal government "will continue to listen and engage with Indigenous groups to assess how to best correct the wrongs of the past."

Our government must seize this opportunity to acknowledge that our past has been far from perfect and reflect on the darker chapters of our history," said Pierre-Olivier Herbert, Joly's press secretary.

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. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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