As It Happens

Ontario teacher explains why Sir John A. Macdonald's name should be stripped from public schools

The motion was approved by the The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario.
Felipe Pareja says that removing Sir John A. Macdonald's name from schools in Ontario is controversial, but important for truth and reconciliation. (Felipe Pareja/Facebook )

Story transcript

Felipe Pareja wants the name of Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, removed from all public schools in Ontario. Now, the teacher and member of The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO), is one step closer to seeing that happen. 

At a meeting last week, the ETFO approved a motion introduced by Pareja calling on school boards across the province to consider stripping the name of the man considered the father of Confederation from public schools and buildings. 

The motion describes Macdonald "as the architect of genocide against Indigenous Peoples." 

Pareja says that although he is willing to acknowledge Macdonald's role in creating Canada, the first prime minister, "presided over and directed some pretty awful things to happen to Indigenous people of this land. Mainly the creation of the Indian residential school system." 

This move by the EFTO comes after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau changed the name of Langevin Block to The Office of the Prime Minister and the Privy Council in recognition of Hector-Louis Langevin, a founding father and an architect of residential schools. 

Pareja spoke with As It Happens guest host Jim Brown about why this motion is important for truth and reconciliation. Here is part of their conversation. 

The motion by ETFO described Macdonald as "the architect of genocide against Indigenous People." (National Archive of Canada/Canadian Press)

Why shouldn't Ontario kids go to schools named after Sir John A.?

Really, it's a conversation, Jim, that's being had across the country. In this age, in these times of truth and reconciliation, this is part of a broader conversation about what kinds of things we can do as a society to truly reconcile ourselves as settlers to this land with our Indigenous peoples... With the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island.

And so as a federation, as an elementary teacher's federation, as the federation of Ontario, we've made the decision, we've passed a resolution at our annual meeting last week to urge school boards to consider changing the names of school buildings or other buildings possibly that are named after John A. Macdonald in recognition of his central role as the architect of really what was genocide of Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island.

Could you describe the nature of the debate that led to the passing of that resolution? There must have been some dissenting voices in the room.

Oh certainly. Certainly there were. It was a debate in the truest sense of the word. We had speakers lined up [behind] pro-mics. We had speakers lined up behind con-mics. It was by no means unanimous. It was vigorously debated. But when it came time to call for the vote, it did pass. And it passed by a substantial margin based on my sort of reading of the floor.

The Lanvgevin Block, now named The Office of the Prime Minister and the Privy Council, on Wellington Street in downtown Ottawa. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Presumably some of the people there were history teachers, and presumably someone made the argument that without Sir John A., this country probably wouldn't exist. He was the Father of Confederation.  If you can't name a school after Sir John A. Macdonald, who can you name a school after?

If we're going to attribute that piece of history to him, we also have to be prepared likewise [to] attribute some darker elements of our history to him as well. And that project, this project that we call Canada, in its conception, Sir John A. Macdonald presided over and directed some pretty awful things to happen to Indigenous people of this land. Mainly the creation of the Indian residential school system, which we know the Truth and Reconciliation [Commission of Canada] came to the conclusion that it did amount to genocide of Indigenous peoples.

Where does it stop? Horrible things have been done by people who we honour on our currency and on our public buildings from the date of confederation to present and preceding confederation as well. You mentioned the Indian residential school system. The last residential school didn't actually shut down until the mid 90s. So does that mean only prime ministers who served after Chretien can have schools named after them?

That system was created under prime minister John A. Macdonald. In addition to having been prime minister at the time he also occupied a position that we would come to understand  today, what we would call today, as the minister of Indigenous or Aboriginal affairs.

This is just largely in recognition of that. And it's not dissimilar to a decision made by the federal government recently to rename the Langevin Block building on Wellington in recognition of Hector Louis Langevin's role in the same project that was the Indian residential school system.

I'd just like to read you a short quote from conservative MP Erin O'Toole. This is something he tweeted out when he heard about your motion. His quote is, "Embarrassing a Teacher's Union needs a lesson on how to teach history." What would you say to Mr. O'Toole?

I would say that it's precisely because we as teachers are fully cognizant of the full history of this country, that's the reason why we are pushing this motion forward. 

I would say it's the furthest thing from embarrassing.

Your motion has been approved. But your union doesn't have the power to make these name changes happen. What would have to happen for Sir John A. Macdonald's name to start coming off schools?

It would be a conversation that the federation through our provincial body and likely through our locals in all parts of the province would engage in with the boards.

In days and times such as these when we see the kinds of things that we're seeing all over the world, south of the border, up here as well, I would be hard pressed to think that anyone would believe or agree that a little bit of open and genuine conversation is not the way to go.   

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more, listen to our conversation with Felipe Pareja.