Tear Down This Name!

During a recent segment on TVO’s The Agenda, host Steve Paiken explored the issue of removing Sir John A. Macdonald’s name from schools across Ontario. Niigan Sinclair (son of Senator Sinclair), Tori Cress and Christopher Dummitt offer their opinions on the subject and shed light on the various positions concerning the removal of historical figures across Ontario and Canada in the name of aboriginal reconciliation. I have to add that I am very fond of The Agenda with Steve Paiken, and the work that he and producer Harrison Lowman do is fantastic and adds an articulated point of view to the national discussion on a variety of topics. However, I do take particular issue with this segment. Certainly not in The Agenda hosting it, if anything we need more of this sort of a discussion, but because of the points that were brought up and the inability for any of the panelists and host to adequately address what was being said in the course of presenting each point.

I will first start with the scene that Sinclair sets up when he asks us to imagine “that we have a leader who has commanded the deaths of your family, the removal of your children and the forcible relocation of your lives.” Adding that one should also imagine living in a society where that particular leader is revered. I can imagine such a scenario, although I will admit that I cannot truly understand what it would feel like emotionally to be in such a position beyond the limitations of human empathy. And when I do imagine such a scenario, I am most certainly moved to change my own perspective when I come back to my own reality– which is not that imagined scenario, in fact it is much different. This is important and effective, which is why Sinclair is wise enough to invoke the exercise early in his portion of the segment. It would be a cold-hearted person who would honestly learn about the history and the perspective and walk away without feeling a need to change one’s own perspective. And for the vast majority of Canadians, this is most certainly the case when we talk about reconciliation with aboriginal peoples. No one with a proper mind is denying that we are in a terrible state with regard to our relations and that action is need to rectify what are empirical difference in government and social policy. And if you are truly paying attention to things like the report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the current Commission on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and with articulations made by activists, especially those during the Canada 150 Canada Day celebrations, than you ought to walk away with a drive and determination that change needs to happen.

But there is a massive problem with what Sinclair wants to do and it comes up later in his portion. During an exchange with Dummitt, Sinclair admits that what most Canadians think makes up their history is in fact a lie and he adds that his version, the one presumably that he had me imagine earlier, is the right one. The problem with this approach is that it is no different, not one bit, from saying that my understanding of history and the colonization of North American by the British and French empires is actually the truth and his version is a lie. That argument does us no good. Reconciliation is not about taking worn arguments used in bad faith by one side and exchanging them to the other side. We know for a fact that this kind of approach gets us nowhere. Even Sinclair’s father, Senator Murray Sinclair, treaded carefully speaking of the approach of tearing down historical figures in the name of reconciliation by saying that it almost “smacks as revenge.” And it does most certainly almost smack as revenge, because it is revenge. And revenge is not reconciliation.

Professor Dummitt holds his position well during the course of the discussion. As a professor of history, he rightly points out that no doubt his role on the panel is to represent the other side of the debate in this matter. But Dummitt does not pass up worn arguments about British superiority, civilizing the “savages” or undermining the suggestion that Sir John A. was a terrible person. He rightly points out that we do not get to pick our national leaders, they are handed down to us, and there is a remarkable list of good things that Macdonald did as a leader in Canada. The British North America Act of 1867, as Dummitt points out, being chief among them. But these things do not undermine that for an entirely different segment of society, and one that has been forced to have no voice in this historical process, Macdonald’s role in Canada was different. Because history is different for everyone, even people within a particular segment of society, and that is okay. What is not okay is when we start to separate versions of history based on who is right and who is wrong, than it becomes a fight because only the victor gets to write history in their name and claim superiority. And this kind of way, which is how we operated as humans for far too long, is certainly not compatible with a free, just and multi-cultural society. There concepts we agree to as human beings, nothing more and nothing less.

The conclusion that both Paikan and Dummitt seem to dance around is that keeping the names and the statues but adding plaques or erecting new buildings and statues with a focus on aboriginal and other historical figures seems to be the right approach. It is a new perspective that comes about when one begins to understand the issues that aboriginal people in Canada have faced for generations. It allows all segments of society to have their own perspectives and understanding of history and the importance of the figures littered throughout it, without undermining one or the other or claiming that one is true while the other is not. It would be, without question, a very Canadian approach to solving the issue of the names of historical people on public buildings. And it would allow history to remain personal for each individual which is how a free, just and multi-cultural society would approach the issue.

I find Sinclair’s position to be extreme. And since political extremes can be plotted along a spectrum, I would place it along the same axis as a white person who would still today preach British superiority and greatness. These are worn and tired arguments that are rooted in emotion and not logic or relevance. Worse, they are both charged with revenge and hatred for the “other” in each scenario. That solves nothing. I think that Dummitt presented a well thought out and reasonable argument that represents the civil and cautious approach this issue– certainly warranted in this specific case given the poll from Ontario on the subject. It was a great segment without question, but I couldn’t walk away from it without feeling there is still a need for much more discussion.