Sir John A Macdonald: It’s all about the context

By: Laura Steiner

History’s a funny thing.  If we learn from it, it loses its power over us. If we don’t, we repeat it.   Regardless, it has to be taken as a whole, and in the context of the times it happens.

Take Sir John Macdonald for example.  The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) want his name removed from schools, and buildings because he started the Residential Schools’ systems.

Macdonald was also a father of Confederation.  He built the railroad.  He made an incredible impact on this country for good or ill.  Arguably without him, there might not be even be a Canada today.  He is also responsible for  Residential Schools.  When we look back with present-day glasses, we realize the damage they’ve done.

But at the time not so much.  The early-mid 1800’s were marked by war, rebellion, and political upheaval.  There was the war of 1812, which actually lasted 1812-1814 providing one reason for Confederation: uniting to ward off American invasion. Politically , the two legislatures of Upper, and Lower Canada were at consistent deadlocks.  Uniting into one country would rid the deadlock.

In the years leading up to the Indian Act, Louis Riel led a Metis rebellion in 1869, which led to the addition of Manitoba to the Canadian confederation.  Riel was executed in 1885 for his role in a second rebellion. The Fenian Raids held parts of the country hostage from 1841-1871.  The Fenians were a group of Irish veterans fighting for Ireland’s independence by causing disruption in Canada.

When you look through the lenses of the times, there was a sense of desperation to safeguard the colony from internal, and external threats. Because of Riel’s rebellion, the First Nations were probably classified as a threat.  In the colonial way of thinking  the threat, in this case the idea of potential rebellion, had to be eliminated, no matter what.

Residential Schools was one of the biggest mistakes in Canadian history.  Looking at it in the context of the times, instead of as the action of one man helps with understanding.  Instead of getting rid of Macdonald’s name, why not teach a little bit more about him, and his times?  It couldn’t hurt.