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Opinion: Tell the whole story about Sir John

The statue of Sir John A. Macdonald as it stands in Kingston’s City Park. Kingston City Council meets for a Special Meeting on Wednesday, Jun. 16, 2021 to discuss the possible removal of the statue. Kingstonist file photo.

The following is a submitted Op-Ed article. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of The Kingstonist.

What to do with Sir John A’s towering presence in City Park? Is it right to look up to him? That’s the question Kingston City Council will tackle head on at a special meeting on Wednesday, Jun. 16, 2021. The issue is timely, as a group of peaceful protestors – known as Revolution of the Heart – have recently covered the statue with a scarlet red sheet asking for his removal. A striking and symbolic visual, I’d say. So, should that stay? Should he be restored in splendor? Or should the bronze and marble come down entirely?

As a councillor, by my rough estimate, the number of letters on both sides of the argument is the most voluminous and considered I have seen. When it comes to local decision making, sometimes, like on the climate file, there is an overwhelming groundswell of support in one direction. Other times, perhaps on a development application, there is a division amongst residents to greater or lesser degrees. But rarely is there what appears to be an equal force for and against an issue or action.

Weighing the arguments of the opponents and proponents of removing/keeping the statue, the path forward is clear, in my opinion. Yet it is complex. And that’s the point.

Indeed, the perspectives expressed by so many thoughtful and compassionate Kingstonians in emails to me and other members of council paints a multifaceted picture. Taken together, and only in that dynamic tension, would I say their points of view are a fair conjuring of Sir John A.

On one hand, the man historically known as “Kingston’s most beloved son” is an emblem of all that is good about our country. Canada, they say, is a shining historical anomaly: that a land so vast and diverse could be subjected to a single federal rule, the compromise of colonial forces, the forging of a successful, industrialized, and relatively benign nation. The railroad, RCMP, and Confederation itself reign amongst Macdonald’s many glittering moments, supporters claim.

On the other hand, Canada’s first PM is an agent of genocide, responsible for the death and destruction of First Nations, Inuit, Metis; one who provided the political architecture and ultimate force for residential schools; the prime minister behind racist head taxes and other problematic policies which engrained a history of hurt and horror for non-Europeans, detractors will tell you. The Indian Act itself, continued trauma, and inequitable outcomes for Indigenous folks, are obvious examples of his sullied legacy.

I agree with both.

This is not flippant centrism which devalues or underappreciates the two arguments at play. Saying Macdonald is at once angelic and demonic, to use ecclesial language, is not some bland compromise that fails to acknowledge the truth expressed by either camp. The fact that someone can represent amazing nation-building undertakings (so significantly shaping Canada) and disgusting assimilative actions (nearly destroying the place’s original inhabitants) is not a contradiction. It’s history. It’s humanity.

So, I believe, council must tell the whole story.

I say this as someone who, like millions of Canadians, only learned about residential schools as an adult, and is still learning. I say this as the former education officer of the Sir John A Bicentennial commissioner, and a current high school history teacher. And I say this as a settler and Christian committed to ongoing and enduring reconciliation.

But what does that mean? It means we must take the statue down to continue the tough, ever cogent discussions and actions for truth and reconciliation. Lowering Sir John A is a symbolic move that gives space for the noted complexity to more fully come out. It provides time for us to collectively consider what more we must do structurally to deal with the thorny legacy of the man in question. It’s not erasing history, it’s levelling it. To do otherwise would say Macdonald is worthy to be on a pedestal. He is not.

Such temporary relegation and permanent re-contextualization is not to say “Old Tomorrow” is of no value today, however. Nor that he is all bad. His feats, briefly mentioned above, are well chronicled in books by historians like Richard Gywn and Donald Crieghton. I recommend these volumes, which point to his good, be read alongside A National Crime by John Milloy, which suggests the opposite. In conversation, they elucidate the complicated nature of Canada’s most polarizing colonial figure and compel government to do something about it. 

Therefore, if we are to look at the past with eyes wide open, so the present can be more completely informed and inspired to move forward, both views of the character must be included. Because humans are complex, imperfect. Our nature is in constant competition between light and dark. For this reason, taking SJAM down is not naive cancel culture that asks for purported purity. Who could meet that standard? Rather, it is an act of reconciliation that acknowledges the harm he caused. A de-platforming says, despite his apparent triumphs, real as they are, Macdonald is in fact unworthy of our blind veneration.

We must end the hagiography of such an embodied monument. Instead, we need to state things plainly and purposefully, including the systemic violence Macdonad’s governments (and those after him, to be sure) ravaged on First Nations, Inuit, and Metis populations. It was a deep damage that was noted as early as early 1922 (decades after Macdonald’s death, to be sure), of which we were recently reminded with the horrific discovery in Kamloops.

Drawing on two obvious examples to further the argument: Stalin industrialized his country and brought technology to the USSR that ultimately increased quality of life. And he killed millions of citizens through totalitarian brutality. Or, closer to home – as both conservative and progressive commentators have pointed out on social media – Tommy Douglas, who championed medicare for all (excellent!), also promoted eugenics (despicable!). Douglas’ statue, we out to notice, is fittingly on ground level.

In other words, it’s always possible to articulate potentially redeeming features, or occasionally gracious achievements, of any ‘villain.’ Vice versa for ‘heroes.’ As it is with SJAM. But we can’t point to his success to cover up his sins. If that language is too strong for your taste, I ask you, if the man responsible for the savage destruction of your family were to be commemorated with the most significant statue in your hometown would you feel respected by and reconciled with those who allowed for that madness to occur?

Yet, I don’t want us to forget Sir John. He has a place in the stories we tell ourselves, warts and all. There are tales of a special and awesome country. And still these narratives, particularly the challenging ones, remind us that we should honour and love everyone, everywhere over against subjugating and/or demonizing them based on our own standards and judgements

In sum, my primary point is that some of Macdonad’s policies were so heinous that he should not occupy the physical space that he does in our community. We should not elevate him – literally. While at the same time we ought not pretend he did not do something special in helping form Canada, problematic and profound as it is.

Finally, and most importantly, while I hope we take Sir John A down, doing so must propel us to ongoing dialogue, especially with Indigenous peoples, about how to remember, celebrate, and promote our country in a way that is honest, laying out the many realities of what this place means. We must act on the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We must teach our kids and each other that there were many harmed and helped in the creation of Canada, and that many remain harmed and helped today. And we do this in order to ensure everyone who lives here is honoured, respected, and provided with the conditions in which to flourish.

Robert Kiley is Kingston City Councillor for Trillium District and a high school teacher. He writes a monthly “behind the scenes” Op-Ed article for The Kingstonist. He tweets at @robert_kiley.

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4 thoughts on “Opinion: Tell the whole story about Sir John

  • June 16, 2021 at 11:29 am
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    While I agree that many of Sir John’s actions were way out of line by to-days standards and beliefs I also think that he was doing what he thought was best for our nation based on the standards of his time. I do not think that someone should be removed from our wonderful history because of that. Judge not lest thee be judged.

  • June 16, 2021 at 1:22 pm
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    I don’t believe in monuments to people. I believe in this century with the challenges we face each moment of every day, it really is the steps we take to protect, to respect and to improve upon the quality of life we can so quickly lose. Leadership comes from within each of us, not from figureheads. I don’t see Sir John A. Macdonald as anything important to me, I suppose. I see the artist’s work to create a piece that has stood the test of time. Sir John A. Macdonald is quite dead, never met him and my family who were U.E.L. in this area and go even further back to the 1600’s in North America, never gave much notice of him either, from what I understand. They were too busy just surviving in a world without cell phones, health care choices and the amenities we do have today. Let’s make the mistakes of the past, and they are horrific to say the least, mean something. We have communication tools that should prevent this from happening.

    Let’s put John in a museum. Plant community gardens, embrace environmentalism on every level, and let that be the legacy we leave to our future generations. This is NOT about us. What will these future generations think about us if we cannot protect THEIR FUTURE.

    I’m planting seeds to grow food for others in my front yard next year!

    No one person defines who we are, and who:

    We aren’t.

    Eugenie Graham
    Napanee

  • June 17, 2021 at 9:42 am
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    Thanks for the breakdown of some of the of why and why nots Sir John A should be demoted. Erecting statues and naming streets, buildings, parks, etc. after those who we feel provided us with inspiration is always a bit of a gamble because we all have our human failings and norms change over time. Should the Councillors of the City of Kingston decide that Sr John A. must be demoted and removed, then a new policy should be struck removing all statues and also the removing the names of all individuals on our streets, parks, and buildings. It will be a cumbersome task, but fair.

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