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.

American Rage and the Day I Was Tear Gassed

Canadians are nice. We seem to revel in our reputation as being so nice that when bumped we say sorry or when queue-jumped we say nothing. A problem, of course, is that a slight scratch beneath of the surface reveals that we are really not that nice at all. And that’s what scares me about the American election.

Fifteen years ago, in April 2001, after reading about the 1999 troubles in Seattle and with Horton Hears a Who in our minds – I swear – my dear wife and I left our little Ontario village and headed to Quebec City. We were ready to add our little yop to voices being raised in concern over cascading corporate power and shrinking concentrations of wealth at the third Summit of the Americas conference. As a historian and with my wife’s degree in political science, we were curious about being witness to the making of history and a political point.

We joined a wondrously joyful parade. Colourful banners and flags were hoisted above thousands of people singing, strumming guitars and some even dancing on stilts. There were old people and children. Most of the signs were serious and many were good natured. We walked slowly beneath a wonderfully cloudless blue sky enjoying the positive atmosphere and folks who were taking their messages but not themselves too seriously.

The world leaders discussing the possibility of creating a Free Trade Area of the Americas, of course, didn’t see the parade. They were ensconced far away and up the hill in the National Assembly building behind the 4 km fence and cordons of police. At the parade’s end, most people milled about and there were hugs and goodbyes. But I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t go home without venturing up to see the so-called red zone, the area closest to the fence, where the streets were blocked and businesses shuttered.

I walked slowly up the hill and then slower still. At red zone’s outer perimeter it was like an eclipse had blotted the sun. The world had morphed to black and white. It was eerily quiet. The parade had been a party but this was a war. The air reeked of gasoline. The streets were littered and dirty. Everything seemed wet. Everyone seemed sweaty. People wore varieties of battle fatigues and many wore bandanas and had ski-goggles dangling on their chests. No one smiled.

Down a narrow street, I watched 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 silver fence was a row of police officers. They were in black riot gear and faceless with face guards down. They looked every bit like a row of Darth Vaders. Each officer held a club and each smacked it onto their left palms to the song’s beat – ones and threes. They could not have been more intimidating. I guess that was the point.

I swallowed the metallic taste of adrenaline. Around the corner, I found another stretch of fence blocking the road before me with another row of police officers 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 right. No one else was near. We discovered that curiosity had drawn us both from Ontario to the parade and then up the hill and that we were both shocked by the incredibly tense atmosphere. We traded ideas about a restaurant for dinner. We were just two middle-aged guys in shorts and golf shirts, obviously tourists not terrorists.

We were startled when a silver canister crashed behind us spewing white-gray tear gas. We instinctively pivoted away and blindly careened smack into the fence. The line of cops charged forward and smashed it with their clubs. We spun 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 was gone. I have no idea what happened to my companion. I staggered dazed and bewildered as people ran past in both directions shouting that crazy Canadian jumble of English, French, and profanity.

Woozy and blinded, I wobbled down the street and happened upon a group of young people shouting through the fence at yet another line of storm troopers. I turned and yelled every ugly epithet my years of school yards and hockey dressing rooms had taught me. But then, in mid-tirade, it was like I snapped awake. Perhaps the gas had worn off. Perhaps my righteous temper had peaked. I was suddenly embarrassed that every ounce of anger I had imprisoned since childhood had been so quickly and completely un-caged. I was shocked at my rage and at the sound of my own voice and what I heard that voice shouting.

The Day I Was Tear Gassed

I stumbled back to the sidewalk and watched two groups of Canadians – protesters and police – probably much the same age, who probably grew up in similar neighbourhoods, separated only by twists of fate and a fence that I was suddenly glad was there. My youngest brother was one of the helmeted cops assembled in Quebec City that day. He may have been among those standing in silence before me now; perhaps he was the target of my flash of crazy abuse. I needed to get out of there.

The day I was tear gassed did not rob me of my optimism for Canada, pride in being Canadian, or my respect for those who legally and reasonably protest or those who reasonably and legally keep law and order. However, I am little less sanguine about the unwritten social contract that binds us and the thin veneer of civility that protects us.

Reflecting on that day and upon how that veneer has become even thinner makes me tremble a little as I watch Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump appeal to the rage that roils beneath it. How much longer can our niceness be sustained when the globalization of power and wealth in the hands of a shrinking few – the point of the Quebec protest and core of the Sanders/Trump appeal – has shrunk even further. What happens if the fraying social contract snaps? What happens when voting for change is no longer seen as enough? What happens if the police change sides?

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