Scrubbing History: Sir John and General Lee

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 a death. The fight is gearing up in Canada with an Ontario teacher’s union demanding that Sir John A. Macdonald Elementary School change its name.

Power and Sir John's Echo

In the United States, memorials to Lee and other Confederate leaders are being attacked as symbols of white supremacy – and the point is valid. Southern states seceded and fought the Civil War primarily to maintain slavery.

Most of the Confederate statues erected and most of what’s named after Confederate leaders were done to celebrate the legitimacy of that reprehensible goal; they appeared around 1910 to support Jim Crow segregationist laws and in the 1960s to combat the civil rights movement.

The statues should come down. The names should be changed.

Sir John A. Macdonald’s legacy is more nuanced. He was the indispensable leader who led the Confederation debates in Charlottetown, Quebec City, and London and guided the creation of our constitution. He was our first prime minister and 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 from threats of American annexation when he purchased Rupert’s Land, kept British Columbia from joining the United States and negotiated the Washington Treaty in which Britain was considering giving Canada to the Americans to avoid paying Civil War reparations. He kept us united by having French and English work together and attempted to grant women the right to vote.

In American terms, Macdonald is our Jefferson, Washington and Madison.

However, Macdonald also 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 then crushed Riel’s Saskatchewan rebellion.

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.

Lee fought for a horrible end. Macdonald worked for a remarkable 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 is 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 or a sword to attack the ideas of others or a fence 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 existential, national conversation.

Ironically, that is the point missed by members of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario who asked school boards to rename schools bearing the name of our first prime minister. 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 used to teach and learn about crimes that he and we committed.

We should use them to critically examine how we have grown, atonements due and work remaining. What better place for those conversations than public places with monuments bearing plaques briefly explaining aspects of Sir John that swell our chests or well our tears?

What better place for those conversations than schools, especially those bearing his name. So, let us not scrub Sir John from our public spaces, instead, let history to do its job.

This column originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen and was the subject of my appearances on CTV television’s Your Morning and CBC Radio’s The Current. I would appreciate your comments on this latest conversation about who we are.

The Courage that Changed Nations

Courage changes lives. We are surrounded by a million acts of personal courage but nearly all are unseen and unsung. There is the courage of the shy boy raising his hand in the classroom and the timid girl clenching her jaw and walking on to the playground when, for many girls, it is a battlefield. There is the courage of the single Mom somehow managing another morning of scurrying kids to school and herself to work while wondering if there will be more month than money. Courage is not the absence of fear but the presence of determination. Courage is the world’s greatest agent of change.

Courage changes also nations.

In 1990, secret meetings between Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and provincial and territorial leaders led to the Meech Lake Accord. The short document detailed a series of constitutional changes that shifted significant power from the federal government. It was designed to seduce Quebec into doing what it had refused to do nine years before and sign Canada’s new Constitution with its embedded Charter of Rights and Freedoms. One by one, provincial and territorial governments ratified the Meech Lake deal before its looming June 23 deadline. No one expected what happened next.

The speaker of Manitoba’s legislature asked for unanimous consent to waive a two-day waiting period and immediately begin the ratification debate. Alone among his colleagues, with an eagle feather in hand, Elijah Harper said no. Harper was an Ojibwa-Cree and former Chief of the Red Sucker Lake Community. His bold action in the House that day reflected the anger of many Aboriginal people who were upset that they had been left out of the process that created the Meech Lake Accord and that its constitutional changes ignored their concerns. Their historic concerns and pleas for respect had not been dismissed by those who designed the constitutional accord. Worse. Their concerns and pleas had not even crossed their minds. Harper’s no paralyzed the legislature. It stunned the country.

The legitimate concerns of Aboriginal nations had not been dismissed by those who designed the constitutional accord. Worse. The concerns had not even crossed their minds. Then Harper’s no paralyzed the legislature. It stunned the country.

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(Photo: Rabble.ca)

The next day, the speaker again asked for unanimous consent. Again, Mr. Harper said no. Eight times he said no until the clock ran out. The debate never happened. Newfoundland’s premier then refused to bring his legislature to a vote. Meech Lake was dead.

Prime Minister Mulroney was enraged, thought Harper was stupid, but understood the magnitude of what had just changed. He set to work constructing a new series of constitutional amendments that would become the Charlottetown Accord. This time, though, Mulroney sought a broader consensus. He ensured that Aboriginal people were part of the consultation and decision-making process.

Native nations spoke with many voices and all were heard. The Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, the Native Council of Canada, and the Métis National Council all participated in consultations and helped shape the final document.

The accord presented to the Canadian people in a 2009 referendum stated that, after a three-year waiting period, Aboriginal peoples would be granted self-government. Treaty rights would be entrenched in the Constitution. This time, however, for reasons that had little to do with Native participation or promises made, it was the Canadian peoples’ turn to say no.  The Charlottetown Accord was tossed on history’s scrap heap atop Meech Lake.

But a change had happened. Harper’s lesson was learned. The Charlottetown consultations had brought Aboriginal issues to the forefront of Canada’s civic conversation. Afterward, a Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples allowed a national airing of history’s insults, crimes, and atrocities. It led to a federal law that met Charlottetown’s promise: the recognition of the inherent right of Aboriginal self-government and a constitutional recognition of treaty rights. Parliament issued an apology for the unforgivable horrors of the government and church-run residential schools.

Aboriginal nations were now in the halls of power with more of their concerns recognized and better understood. But where laws and hearts must walk in tandem, change is slow. Many infuriatingly complex problems still face Aboriginal peoples and shape their place within Canada. Problems three hundred years in the making are not being quickly solved. But they are no longer ignored, and, despite occasional setbacks, there is steady, often begrudging, but determined progress.

A year after his brave stand in the Manitoba legislature, Elijah Harper received the prestigious Stanley Knowles Humanitarian Award. It was the same award given by the Canadian parliament to Nelson Mandela for the courage he showed in helping to end South Africa’s apartheid. Harper accepted the award with the same quiet, humility with which he had sat with his eagle feather and said no. Courage, after all, is neither brash nor boastful. Courage acknowledges doubt and fear but refuses to be cowed by them. It is the humility of the shy boy, timid girl, and single Mom who summon quiet courage to change and shape their lives. It is the courage of Mr. Harper who changed the Canadian nation and Aboriginal nations by placing them on the road to where they should always have been.

Redemption’s road is long and rocky but we must all summon the courage to travel it and to do so together. Let the drinking water be cleaned, let the children be educated, let the murdered and missing women be investigated, recognized, and mourned, let the treaties be obeyed, the land respected, and respect ensured. As the courageous Mr. Harper knew, it’s been too long, but it’s not too late.

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A Man of Many Nations at the Intersection of Time

He stood at the intersection of time, a man of many nations, and a man whose leadership lessons resonate through the ages. His name was Thayendanegea but we know him better as Joseph Brant.

Thayendanegea was born the son of a Mohawk chief in present day Ohio in the 1740s when his people where still seen by the French, British, and American colonists as allies and trading partners. However, those days were ending. The Seven Years War, called the French Indian War in the United States, was a world war. It swept across the Atlantic and saw aboriginal nations choose between the French and British. Thayendanegea was in the thick of it all.

His family had moved to what is now upper New York state. Powerful and wealthy British diplomat William Johnson had married his sister Molly. Johnson had taken note of Thayendanegea’s intellect and leadership qualities. After assuming the English name Joseph Brant, he enrolled in a Connecticut school where he perfected English and learned Latin, Mathematics, History, and more.

With growing talk of war, Johnson arranged for Brant to join the British army. At age 15, he fought in the 1758 expedition that ended with the horrific Battle of Carillon. He was promoted to captain after leading men at the 1759 Battle of Fort Niagara. In 1760, he led Mohawk men in the 1760 siege of Montreal that saw the city fall to British and Mohawk forces and, with that defeat, the French empire leave North America.

Brant was one of 181 Native American soldiers honoured with Britain’s Silver Medal. Britain had won but demanded that its American colonists help pay for the war with a series of taxes and that they remain east of a line drawn to protect Native land. As tensions grew, Brant was again that the center of it all.

He had become an influential leader in the six-member Iroquois League, formed to present a united aboriginal front. With growing violence demonstrating that the British and colonists were headed for war, the League convened in August 1775. The League was broken. Four of the six nations decided to back Britain, including the Mohawks, now led by Chief Joseph Brant.

With the revolutionary war causing more intrusions into Mohawk land and Britain asking for more aboriginal help, in 1777 Brant and Johnson’s successor Guy Johnson traveled to London. Brant met with political leaders, members of the artistic and academic community, and twice with King George III. He spoke articulately and in his perfect English of the advantage to Britain of a full alliance with the Mohawk nation. He left with the promise that his efforts in the war would be rewarded with protection and land grants.

Joseph Brant

(Photo: http://www.nativecanadian.ca)

Brant was good to his word. He rallied a substantial force of Mohawk soldiers and for the next two years led them in a number of operations and battles. He and his men fought with the British at Fort Oswego, at the Siege of Fort Stanwix, and the Battle of Oriskany. The war became vicious with both sides destroying livestock, poisoning wells, burning farms, homes and towns, and slaughtering civilians. In November 1778, Brant led 300 Mohawks on a raid along with 150 British Rangers led by Captain Walter Butler that resulted 30 civilian deaths in Cherry Valley. General George Washington reacted by ordering an expedition that resulted in the destruction of over 40 Iroquois villages and the murder of countless women, children, and old people.

Brant gathered his people and soldiers and, after consultation with British generals, moved in April 1781 to Fort Detroit. He was victorious in a number of battles against American troops but conditions grew harsh, British provisions stopped, and on the Atlantic coast, Britain suffered its final defeats.

With the Revolutionary War’s conclusion, Brant and his Mohawk people were left without land, economy, or friends. The 1784 Treaty of Fort Stanwix saw the new American government take control of what had been aboriginal land. Meanwhile, newspapers branded a number of Native leaders who had fought with the British as war criminals. Brant was personally cursed as a monster with actions he and his men had taken exaggerated while similar actions by American armies were swept from official accounts and popular memory.

Brant returned to England where he again met with King George III. He was promised a personal pension with vague pledges of land. With a new American war against aboriginal people spilling more blood and more burning towns, Brant met with Quebec Governor Lord Dorchester and then with President Washington. Despite his efforts he could not negotiate an end to the American – Indian war or secure land for his people. The 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers led to a number of aboriginal nations signing a treaty that ceded scraps of land for a tenuous peace. Like Shawnee war leader Tecumseh, Brant refused to surrender and sign.

Brant gave up on the Americans. He dealt with the British and, with the assistance of Upper Canada Governor John Graves Simcoe, secured a large land grant along the Grand River that flowed north from Lake Erie in what is now Ontario. Brant moved the remnants of his Six Nations people to the fertile valley and together they developed the area while affording protection against a possible American invasion across the border at Niagara. Roads and towns were built and farms thrived.

Brant bought an additional 3,500 acres from the Mississauga nation at the western tip of Lake Ontario at Burlington Bay. He built a fine house on a cliff that afforded him a stunning vista over the lake. He lived in peace and until his death in November 1807.

Today, memory of Brant has been washed from America but Ontario has the city of Brantford, Burlington’s main street is Brant Street and its hospital is Joseph Brant Memorial. He is remembered as a diplomat, military leader, and a fierce defender of the dignity and rights of his people. The Iroquois confederation he helped form is remembered as an inspiration not only for Tecumseh but also for American and, later, Canadian leaders who admired its democratic nature and federal political structure. Brant and his struggles should be recalled when those living along the Grand River and elsewhere in Canada and the United States are reminded from time to time that their homes may well rest on Native land.

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