Sir John A. Macdonald is no Robert E. Lee. But the 19th-century leaders are similar in that they are leading again.
This time, they are serving as the focus of Americans and Canadians squabbling about their history. In the United States, the fights have sparked riots, injuries, and deaths. The fight is gearing up in Canada with Montreal’s much-defaced Macdonald statue being torn down and broken.
(Photo: CBC News)
In the United States, memorials to Lee and other Confederate leaders have been attacked as symbols of white supremacy. The point is valid. Most Confederate statues were erected around 1910 to support Jim Crow segregationist laws with another wave of statues coming in the 1960s to combat the Civil Rights movement. The statues have always had less to do the Civil War and more to do with the war against racial equality.
Sir John A. Macdonald’s legacy is more nuanced and so the statues more complex. He created Canada as the indispensable leader who led the Confederation debates in Charlottetown, Quebec City, and London and guided the creation of our constitution. As our first prime minister, he built the country behind tariff walls and on steel rails with the National Policy and building of the transcontinental railway.
He saved Canada when he stopped Nova Scotia from seceding. He saved us again from threats of American annexation when he purchased Rupert’s Land, kept British Columbia from joining the United States, and then negotiated the Washington Treaty which stopped Britain from giving Canada to the Americans to avoid paying Civil War reparations.
While Macdonald created, built, and saved Canada he was a flawed leader. He ruthlessly exploited Chinese railway workers and later tried to expel them while imposing a prohibitively expensive tax on Chinese immigration. He negotiated with Métis leader Louis Riel to bring Manitoba into Confederation but 15-years later crushed Riel’s Saskatchewan rebellion. He refused to overturn a court’s death sentence and so let Riel hang.
Macdonald thought nothing of taking Indigenous land without consultation or ignoring treaties to take more. He withheld promised food and support from Indigenous nations to pressure them to surrender to reservations and so has been accused of attempted genocide. His government began the first residential schools.
Robert E. Lee and the other Confederate leaders fought for a horrible end. Despite all, Sir John worked for a glorious goal. Macdonald’s image on our money and public monuments and his name on our highways and schools represent our respect for that goal, and not for all he did to pursue it.
And that’s the difference.
We are constantly discussing who we are and who we aspire to be. History’s facts don’t change, but our interpretation of those facts does. History is not a shield to protect ideas, a sword to attack the ideas of others, or a wall to keep us from unpleasant things we’d rather not see. History is a teacher. It is there to teach us about ourselves and to intelligently inform our perpetual, existential, national conversation.
Ironically, that is the point being missed by many at the moment. Since Macdonald’s primary goals were overwhelmingly positive, he should remain celebrated. Because aspects of his means to achieve them were inexcusably appalling, he should be appropriately condemned but used to learn about the crimes that he, and we, committed. We should use him to critically examine how we have grown, atonements due, and the work remaining. What better place for those conversations than public places with monuments bearing plaques briefly explaining aspects of Sir John that both swell our chests and well our tears?
When Macdonald’s statue crashed to the ground in Montreal it represented not an invitation to heal but a demand to ignore – and down that road is not growth but regression.
What better place for our public conversations than public squares. So, let us not scrub Sir John from our public spaces. Instead, let those statues stand and allow history to do its job.