As yet another school removes the name of founding Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, polls show that Canadians are not on board with these types of name changes.
On Wednesday, Ontario’s Peel District School Board voted to rename Sir John A. MacDonald Public School in Brampton to Nibi Emosaawdang Public School. The new name is an Anishinaabe word meaning “water walker,” and is in reference to Josephine Mandamin, a residential school survivor who organized days-long “water walks” around the shores of the Great Lakes to promote water stewardship. She died in 2019.
School board documents indicate that the name was suggested by an elder with the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, after they were approached by school officials for ideas on a new name. “The name lends itself to environmental activism … and centers the themes of reconciliation, equity and social justice which are aligned to the Peel District School board’s commitments to anti-colonialism, anti-racism, anti-oppression,” reads a staff recommendation to trustees.
The Brampton school is far from the first institution to scrub itself of Macdonald’s name in recent years. Four separate statues of Macdonald have come down since 2018: Three due to city council votes and one due to “Defund the Police” protesters in Montreal. In the same period, several schools have removed Macdonald’s name, including one in Pickering, Ont., which also replaced his name with that of Josephine Mandamin.
A Leger poll conducted in February for Postmedia found that a majority of Canadians opposed the nationwide trend towards purging memorials to figures with “questionable” biographies. And it’s not necessarily because they favour a whitewashed version of Canadian history, but rather the exact opposite: A national story that confronts the evils of its players rather than trying to bury them.
Forty-four per cent wanted a version of history that told the “good and bad,” but didn’t “pretend” that the country’s key framers “did not have a positive role in Canada’s history.” Another thirty per cent opposed what they called a “rewriting” of history just because the figures involved “do not look good by today’s standards.”
A 2020 survey by Leger similarly found that three quarters of Canadians objected to the growing trend of “spontaneous” statue topplings of Canadian historical figures. But it wasn’t because respondents necessarily liked the figures getting toppled.
When asked whether Canada should use less anarchic means to remove memorials to “racist” historical figures, the poll respondents were surprisingly divided. Only 47 per cent expressed full-throated opposition to the notion, against 34 per cent who supported it.
Macdonald frequently tops the list of Canadian historical villains for the simple fact that he’s been the most influential.
Here is what Sir John A. Macdonald did to Indigenous people
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It was mainly Macdonald’s doing to unite a scattering of British colonies into a continent-spanning nation independent of the United States. It’s also largely on Macdonald that one of Canada’s first acts was to take a continent’s worth of autonomous Indigenous peoples and shunt them into a form of internal exile from which they’ve never fully emerged.
Macdonald directly oversaw the forcible relocation of First Nations onto reserves, he massively expanded the Indian Residential School system and in his final years he approved the pass system, a 70-year federal policy that would see First Nations people arrested if they left their reserve without approval from their Indian Agent.
The 2021 discovery of unmarked graves at residential school sites across Canada shed an unprecedented amount of public attention on the harms that Macdonald’s policies imposed. An Abacus Data poll conducted for the Assembly of First Nations at the time found that 58 per cent of respondents favoured renaming buildings and institutions carrying the monikers of “architects of the residential school system.”
The most notable example was the former Langevin Block, the Parliament Hill building housing the office of the prime minister. It was previously named for Hector-Louis Langevin, a prominent Conservative politician who is in the parliamentary record saying that “Indian” children needed to be separated from their families for schooling lest they “remain savages.”
An Ipsos poll from last summer similarly painted a picture of a country horrified by the discoveries of unmarked graves. Of respondents, 80 per cent said they were “shocked” by the news.
But while 77 per cent of Canadians supported a national day of remembrance for the Residential School victims, responses became far more complex when the question was turned towards whether it should define the legacy of Macdonald. Fifty nine per cent of respondents reported that Macdonald’s role as the Father of Canada “outweighs his role in the creation of residential schools.”
Even among Indigenous respondents, 43 per cent did not favour a wholesale removal of Macdonald memorials.
Respondents to the recent Leger poll similarly seemed to reflect a new national understanding of what the Indian Residential School system meant to Indigenous Canadians. When asked whether Macdonald “deserves to be treated differently” than other backers of Indian Residential Schools having their names scrubbed from public buildings, the poll was almost perfectly divided: Forty per cent agreed, 37 per cent did not.
Overall, though, 67 per cent of respondents retained a “favourable” impression of Macdonald. The sentiment was almost identical between white Canadians (67 per cent) and non-white Canadians (65 per cent).
Nevertheless, the love for Macdonald was decidedly lukewarm when he was ranked against some of his fellow travellers in Canadian history books.
Louis Riel — who was executed by Macdonald’s government for leading a Metis insurrection against Canada — got a 76 per cent favourability ranking. Agnes MacPhail, the first woman elected to the House of Commons, got a 75 per cent rating. “Father of Medicare” Tommy Douglas emerged with 85 per cent.
But all three, of course, have their own historical skeletons in the closet.
Riel saw himself as a religious prophet ordained to bring polygamy to Canada in order to “teach women once again that the only way for them to be pleasing to God and their husbands … is to sincerely practice the virtues of modesty, thriftiness and kindness.” MacPhail and Douglas publicly shared the view of many progressives at the time that society should be uplifted via state-controlled limits on human breeding.