That wind is blowing up from the South. Ontario's elementary teachers want to remove John A. Macdonald's name from public schools in the province. The issue is Macdonald's treatment of native peoples -- more particularly the role he played in setting up the residential school system. Tom Walkom writes that, if Macdonald's name is erased from public institutions, the names of several prime ministers will also have to be expunged:
Wilfrid Laurier, the Liberal prime minister whose government famously urged Eastern European “men in sheepskin coats” to settle the West, was in the broadest sense pro-immigration. But he also did his best to keep the Chinese out of Canada.William Lyon Mackenzie King, the long-serving prime minister who steered Canada through the Second World War was, in the mid-1930s, a secret fan of Adolph Hitler’s labour relations policies.Under King, Canada was extremely reluctant to take in Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler.
J.S. Woodsworth, the first leader of what is now the New Democratic Party, was a fierce advocate of workers’ rights. But his 1909 book on immigration, Strangers Within our Gates, uses race-based language that would get him expelled from today’s NDP.Robert Borden is generally regarded as a nation-builder who steered Canada through the First World War and into international prominence. But he can also be seen as a nation-buster, whose decision to introduce conscription fanned animosity between English and French Canada.Even modern politicians are complicated. Pierre Trudeau was at one level a civil libertarian whose efforts led to Canada’s constitutionally entrenched charter of rights and freedoms.
Yet he was also the man who, during the FLQ crisis of 1970, casually suspended civil rights, a move that led to the arrest without charge of almost 500 innocent people.
The problem is -- and it has always been -- that public figures are deeply flawed. If we are to remember them, they must be remembered warts and all. Given the standard which is being set here and to the south, very few people would pass muster with succeeding generations. Marc Antony was right: "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones."
Remembering what we did wrong is no excuse for not recalling what we did right. That rule applies to all of us -- public figures and the least among us.