Why our prime ministers matter, despite their past sins

Canada’s history is more than the study of prime ministers. But we learn nothing, and deny our complexity, if we shunt them aside.

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Waterloo, Ontario – 30-06-15 – News – The statue of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald by artist Ruth Abernethy at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo Jun 30, 2015. This is part of a project where statues of all Canadian prime minsters will be displayed around the campus of the university. (Annie Sakkab/Record Staff)

The statue of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald by artist Ruth Abernethy at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo Jun 30, 2015.   (Annie Sakkab/Record Staff)
The statue of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald by artist Ruth Abernethy at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo Jun 30, 2015. (Annie Sakkab/Record Staff)

Canada’s prime ministers are homeless. And the entire country is poorer for it.

In anticipation of Canada’s upcoming 150th birthday, several years ago a group of civic-minded citizens in southwestern Ontario sought to improve public appreciation of our shared history by commissioning and installing life-sized bronze statues of each of Canada’s 22 prime ministers in a large park in downtown Kitchener. It was to be a tourism attraction and conversation starter. Private funding would cover all expenses for the statues.

While Kitchener city hall was initially receptive, response from local residents was almost universally negative. According to a majority of public comments left on the city’s website, the “corrupt dead white men” who (mostly) comprise our country’s past leadership were entirely unsuitable for public commemoration. Kitchener city council quickly dropped the idea.

Then last year Wilfrid Laurier University, in neighbouring Waterloo, offered to make room for the now-homeless titans of Canadian history. The first statue, of Sir John A. Macdonald, was cast and placed in a prominent spot on campus. And the protests began once again. The group Students Against the Statue Project decried it on Facebook as “a visual embodiment of colonialism and an affront to the Indigenous students on campus. Furthermore, it contributes to the perpetuation of a white hetero-male historical narrative of power that erases the existence and achievemenets [sic] of people of color [sic], women, LGBTQ folks and differently abled folks.”

On Feb. 12, Laurier’s board of governors acquiesced to its little emperors and declared the statue plan an impediment to “inclusivity and diversity” on campus. Canada’s leaders are back out on the street.

It is in the nature of university students to demand the right to remake the world to their own satisfaction. This is as it always has been. But it ought to be in the nature of campus administrators to check such impulses when they threaten the integrity of the academic experience, are patently foolish, or do a disservice to Canadian history.

It’s unquestionably true that Canada has committed its share of errors and moral failings over the past 149 years. Whatever our past sins, however, it is also true that Canada today is a beacon to the rest of the world for the strength of our democracy, the height of our living standard and the depth of our commitment to diversity and pluralism. This modern and progressive Canada did not just spring into existence the moment a few precocious undergrads brushed the hair from their eyes. It’s a process that began long before Confederation—and with a dominant role played by the men and women put in charge of this country by the voting public. We shouldn’t be so quick to turn our backs on our past selves.

Canada’s history is, of course, much more than the study of prime ministers. But leadership matters greatly. An appreciation of the causes and implications of the Great Depression, for example, is impossible without understanding the part played by the “white hetero-male colonialists” who were in charge at the time. The same goes for Canada’s triumphs in the First and Second World Wars. What exactly can we learn from history if the only topics suitable for consideration are the roles played by Natives, LGBTQ and differently abled folks at pivotal moments in Canada’s past?

Statues are symbols. The symbolic meaning of the removal of Sir John A’s statue from the Laurier campus, as well as the earlier response from Kitchener’s citizenry, is that history is to be scrubbed clean of controversy and portrayed in a manner that indulges only victimhood and modern sensibilities. The demands of inclusivity and diversity now apparently require universities to shelter their students from any sight of their forebears and turn the once mind-broadening experience of a post-secondary education into a sterile “safe-space” where no uncomfortable truths need be confronted and no sensitivities triggered.

Yet history is rather more complicated than the latest mob currently allows. While Macdonald has borne the brunt of complaints for creating the residential school system and his alleged role in an “Indigenous genocide,” consider that in 1885 he put great political effort into a plan to give Indigenous peoples the vote in federal elections based on his belief that, as British subjects, they were owed the full rights of citizenship. It hardly seems the act of a genocidal racist. And when news of Native starvation on the Prairies arrived in Ottawa following the near-extinction of the buffalo, Macdonald launched a special council to investigate, and quadrupled the food relief budget between 1880 and 1882. “We cannot allow them to die for want of food,” he told the House of Commons.

History is complicated business. Ignoring it doesn’t make us smarter. Canada’s prime ministers deserve a home, and a chance to say their piece.