Instead of Sir John A. Macdonald…

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Laura Wiebe
Laura Wiebe

If, like me, you’re an Ontario-based Canadian and you pay any attention to provincial news, you likely noticed late-summer discussions about removing the name of former Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald from Ontario elementary schools.

Any info I have on how this debate started I got from the CBC, so I’ll direct you there for more details:

“He’s considered Canada’s founding father, but many Ontario teachers want his name stripped from public schools” by Shanifa Nasser

“Ontario teacher explains why Sir John A. Macdonald’s name should be stripped from public school” on As It Happens

If you’re disinclined to follow the links above, here’s a brief overview:

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario voted in favour of a resolution to encourage provincial school boards to remove Macdonald’s name from schools because honouring a man who was instrumental in the destruction of indigenous lives and cultures is not in line with contemporary efforts toward reconciliation.

Inevitably, much debate followed. And, of course, many of the issues involved resonate with tensions south of the border around removing Confederate monuments from places of honour.

One of the questions I’ve seen circulating in both arenas asks, “who is worthy of honouring?” if we’re going to hold our heroes and role models to higher standards.

If this question seems hard to answer, I expect it’s because many people doing the most good and who deserve the most appreciation and respect aren’t among those lauded by history or included in traditional history textbooks.

I had this idea reinforced recently by a discussion on the History Extra podcast about why some historical figures are better known and more popular than others. Guest historians Joanne Paul and Greg Jenner ended up challenging listeners to step up themselves and learn more about some lesser known people from the past.

So maybe it’s up to all of us to dig a little deeper – learn who in (Canadian) history we can sincerely admire, whose actions we deplore, and where the honourable and dishonourable or the virtuous and the villainous intersect. And, while we’re at it, to get a better understanding of how and why honouring many historical figures is so complicated.

I expect social media has produced some suggestions for alternatives Canadian heroes to Sir John A. Macdonald. Let me know if you’ve found any you particularly like or have ideas of your own. (Also, are there relevant “better role model” hashtags I could be following for this?)

Since I originally wrote this post, TVOntario aired a discussion on the Sir John A. Macdonald issue during their September 7 broadcast. Near the end of the debate, one of the guests shared some suggestions for indigenous Canadians who deserve to be honoured, including:

Check out the full segment: “Tear Down This Name! Erasing or Understanding? on The Agenda.

And, if you’re curious, here are a couple Canadian-focused suggestions from historian Joanne Paul:

[note, I’m not necessarily endorsing the sites linked above – these are just a few possible starting points for further investigation]