The Current

Renaming John A. Macdonald schools is part of reconciliation, argues professor

Ontario school boards are being urged to remove the name of the man considered to be the Father of Confederation, Sir John A. Macondald.
The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario has issued a call to remove the name of Canada's first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, from schools in the province. The motion described Macdonald as "the architect of genocide against Indigenous People." (National Archives of Canada/CP)

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What to do with statues that glorify icons of slavery and white supremacy is not only a hot debate in the United States. The controversy holds up in Canada as well, with the latest discussion surrounding the legacy of Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.

The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario recently voted to have his name removed from all public schools in the province.

"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 peoples of this land,"  Felipe Pareja told CBC As It Happens, a teacher behind the successful motion. 

Niigaan Sinclair, who teaches at the University of Manitoba, is encouraged by this move and says it shows that  "Canada is beginning to grow up, starting to act like responsible ethical adults with one another by acknowledging the history and the experiences of all peoples."
Associate professor Niigaan Sinclair argues removing Sir John A. Macdonald for Ontario schools is not about scrubbing history. It's about critical perspective of a person whose legacy includes hatred towards Indigenous people. (National Archive of Canada/CP)

Sinclair tells The Current's host Matt Galloway that with this acknowledgement comes "this uncomfortable feeling," which he explains "is really what reconciliation begins to feel like."

He argues that removing John A. Macdonald's name from schools is not about erasing the past, pointing to an impactful legacy, but says rather it's about critical context.

"Schools are perhaps the most important parts of a nation. That's where the most important discussions happen, and it's critically important that we look at those symbols and say, 'What is it that we're holding up?'" Sinclair asks.

John Boyko, a former dean of history at Lakefield College School, agrees that there is a real need "to advance the conversation in Canada about who we are, who we aspire to be, because we need to engage the past intelligently. And we need to atone for mistakes and crimes in order to plot a path forward."

However, Boyko argues that none of the 95 recommendations in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued in 2015 mentions renaming schools or buildings.

"But what the truth and reconciliation did recommend is that education be used as a tool through which we can properly better educate ourselves and engage in this conversation — that is, I believe, what should be done," he tells Galloway.

Related'Everyone has warts': Indigenous MP supports John A. Macdonald's name on schools

Boyko says that his two grandchildren, who are Ojibwe, are proud of their heritage and to know their history.

"I would be happy with them attending a school named after Sir John Madconald if that school, and other schools properly named after leaders in our history, were to engage the kids in age/grade appropriate manners," he explains.

What is important, Boyko adds, is to be critical and ask the important questions.

"Who is this school named after and what was it in our history that we should be proud of? What is it in our history that we know now were mistakes?"

Listen to the full segment near the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Liz Hoath and Ramraajh Sharvendiran.