Erasing Sir John

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.

Macdonald

(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.

And Then I Was Tear-Gassed

I get it. I am a white, middle-class, healthy, employed, man living in a small, safe, Ontario town. I understand the privilege all that affords. I understand the sensitivity to the challenges of others all that demands. But the day I was tear-gassed affords me a modicum of insight and empathy for those peacefully protesting right now in America and around the world.

Before dawn, in April 2001, my dear wife and I left for Quebec City. We and others were assembling not to protest against the national leaders at the Third Summit of the Americas, but for them. We wanted them to summon the strength needed to stand against the growing corporate power that was running roughshod over individuals and states.

We arrived in time to join a wondrously joyful parade. Colourful banners and flags were hoisted above thousands of people singing, chanting, and some even dancing on stilts. There were old people and children. We walked slowly beneath a wonderfully cloudless blue sky enjoying the positive, party atmosphere and folks who were taking their messages but not themselves too seriously.

The leaders were ensconced far away and up the hill in the National Assembly building behind 4 km of fence and cordons of police. At the parade’s end, most people milled about and there were hugs and goodbyes. But I could not leave without venturing up to see the so-called red zone.

As I reached its outer limits I was stunned. It was like an eclipse had blotted the sun. It was eerily quiet. The air smelled of gasoline. The streets were dirty. People were dressed in varieties of battle fatigues and many had bandanas and goggles dangling on their chests.

Down a narrow street, I saw a group of about twenty young people sitting in a circle and singing John Lennon’s Imagine. Strung behind them from building to building was the silver, gleaming 3-meter-high chain-link fence. Behind the fence was a row of police officers in black riot gear with face guards down and hand-held shields up. They were a column of Darth Vaders. Each was smacking a club into their palms to the song’s beat – ones and threes. They could not have been more intimidating. I guess that was the point.

Around the corner I found another stretch of fence blocking the road before me with another row of Vaders behind it, but I was alone. I did what I always do when I see a police officer; I smiled and waved. None waved back. In a minute or so a man about my age joined me and we stood chatting quietly. We were about ten feet from the fence, looking at each other and not the officers off to our sides. No one else was anywhere near us. We discovered that were both Ontario history teachers. We agreed that conviction had drawn us to Quebec and curiosity up the hill. We traded ideas about a restaurant for dinner. We were just two middle-aged white guys in shorts and golf shirts; very much tourists and not terrorists.

We were startled when a silver canister crashed behind us and white-gray tear gas spewed forth. We instinctively spun away and blindly careened into the fence. The cops charged forward and smashed it with their clubs. We turned and stumbled through the noxious cloud with eyes and lungs on fire. A masked and khaki angel pulled me to a curb, sponged my eyes from a galvanized pail, secured a red kerchief over my nose and mouth, told me to run when I could, and then vanished. I staggered, dazed and bewildered, as people ran past in both directions shouting a jumble of French, English, and profanity.

Woozy and blinded, I wobbled down the road and happened upon a group of young people shouting through the fence at yet another line of stormtroopers. I joined them, yelling every ugly epithet that schoolyards and hockey dressing rooms had taught me. But then, in mid-tirade, it was like I suddenly awoke. Perhaps the gas had worn off. Perhaps my righteous temper had peaked. I was suddenly embarrassed that the anger imprisoned since childhood had been so quickly and completely un-caged. I was shocked at my rage and the sound of my own voice and what I heard that voice shouting.

And Then I Was Teargassed

I stumbled back to the sidewalk across the street and watched the two groups of people – protesters and police – probably much the same age, who probably grew up in similar neighbourhoods, separated only by twists of fate and a fence. My youngest brother is a police officer. I knew he was one of the helmeted cops assembled there that day. Perhaps he was the target of my mad abuse. I needed to get out of there.

I found out later that while my companion and I were innocently chatting, the security system on the other side of the red zone had faltered. Protesters or anarchists or whatever they were had torn down part of the fence at Boulevard René Lévesque and police had reacted around the whole perimeter with gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets. In their attempt to re-establish order, police attacked those with rocks and those with guitars. They attacked those administering first aid. And they attacked my companion and me, over a kilometer from the trouble, who had done nothing at all.

I am reminded of the day I was tear-gassed when I see horrific videos of police brutalizing those peacefully protesting police brutality. I’m reminded of the intersectionality of my privilege and that if it happened to me, imagine all those who have suffered injury and injustice but were not filmed. There are too many George Floyds. We need to end the brutality. We need to end racism. We need to engage in a national conversation built upon the fundamental agreement that we are all fragile, mortal, and human.

The Written and Understood

Society rests upon written rules and established understandings. In the United States right now the written and understood are in tragic conflict.

From 1882 to 1968, 3,446 African Americans were lynched. Last week, we saw another one. A white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee against George Floyd’s throat until he lost consciousness and later died. The written law responded. The officer was charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. That makes sense. The protests that are rocking American cities also make sense. The legitimate protesters are not trying to bring attention to what is written but, rather, what is understood.

Written and Understood

After 700,000 deaths in a Civil War to determine if all men are really created equal, America’s original sin was vanquished. But the belief that had created slavery – a belief in one race’s inherent superiority – remained. The belief was seen in segregation and Jim Crow. It is seen in practices that still suppress African American votes. The belief was seen in the decades of lynchings and when African Americans are pulled over for “driving while black” or shot while walking home with a bag of skittles, or when jogging, or when they are suffocated while on the ground and handcuffed.

There were and are laws standing against all that. But the laws don’t matter. What matters is the underlying understanding. Too many white people and white cops understand that unless there’s a video, they can get away with harassment, assault, and even murder. Too many African American parents understand the need to teach their children to cower, avoid eye contact, and assume the worst in all encounters with white people to keep from being arrested, beaten, or killed. Too many white people think all of that is just fine and too many African Americans think it will never change.

All those understandings violate a bigger understanding. The notion of a Social Contract was first expressed by French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau in 1762. He argued that we all surrender a little of our rights to live in a society that can then protect our essential rights. The Social Contract stipulates, among other things, that if I work hard and live right I can earn a good living and if I obey laws the police won’t bother me.

But what happens if the Social Contract is broken? What if you work hard and live right but the system is stacked in such a way that you still can’t make a decent living? What happens if you obey laws but police and the ignorant and intolerant harass you anyway? What happens if you live in a society where everyone simply understands that the way you are treated every day and the opportunities available to you depend primarily on your race, class, ethnicity, gender, or how long your family’s been here? If all that and more becomes part of what is simply understood, the written laws stand but the Social Contract collapses.

Rousseau wrote that laws are binding only when supported by the peoples’ general will. If the Social Contract dies, that will dies with it. The pandemic tore one part of the Social Contract and the economic collapse ripped another. The recent killings of African Americans, after years of similar murders, left it in shreds. And so, we have Minneapolis and 40 other cities in flames.

We Canadians have our own original sin – the treatment of Indigenous peoples. We have our own less flagrant but equally virulent racism. We can’t be smug.

Thoughtful Americans and Canadians alike should listen to those advocating a broad national conversation not about changing laws but righting systemic economic injustice, racism, and bigotry. We should listen to and support those seeking a restored Social Contract based not on new laws but new foundational understandings. After all, we know that changing laws is easy while changing minds is hard but, in the end, it is the only way to clear the tracks, douse the flames, and save our souls.