Law students call on Queen’s University to rename Sir John A. Macdonald Hall
A petition to change the name of Sir John A. Macdonald Hall at Queen’s University to Patricia Monture Hall has nearly 2900 signatures on change.org.
“Rather than glorify such figures as Sir John A. Macdonald as exemplary figures within Canadian state law, it is time to recognize important role models such as Queen’s alumna and Mohawk lawyer, Patricia Monture,” the petition description reads.
Sebastian DeLine, a PhD candidate in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University and one member of a coalition of Queen’s University students, launched the petition on Thursday, June 11, 2020. The other members of the coalition have requested to remain anonymous to protect their jobs at various law firms.
Macdonald Hall is part of the Queen’s University Faculty of Law. The coalition put forward Monture’s name because of her influential 1988 argument that, as a sovereign citizen or member of the Mohawk Nation within the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, she did not need to take an oath under certain sections of the Public Officers Act or Law Society Act in Ontario.
“Through Patricia Monture’s actions, Indigenous people can now hold an eagle feather rather than swear on a bible in a court of law,” their statement reads. Monture received two honorary doctoral degrees, worked as a professor for several Canadian universities, published numerous articles and three books, before passing away at the age of 52.
“There has been an overwhelming amount of support from fellow Queen’s students, students from other universities, as well as the general public,” one of the students said. “The people supporting the petition are not just Queen’s Law students or alumni, but people from all backgrounds that understand the reason for the demand for a name change.”
The students said they have not received any direct communication or response from the university since the petition launched, however the Dean of the law school, Mark Walters, released a public statement on the topic on Friday, June 12, 2020. In it, Walters deferred authority to change the building’s name to the Board of Trustees.
“I know that the name of our building – Macdonald Hall – is a source of deep concern for many members of the Queen’s Law community given Macdonald’s involvement in the development of the Indian residential school policy in the nineteenth century and other policies that he championed affecting Indigenous peoples and racial minorities,” Walters said.
“Although Macdonald’s role in advancing these hurtful policies is indisputable, the question of how we address his legacy today is a complex one about which people disagree. I should say that the authority to change the name of the building belongs not to me or to the faculty but to the Board of Trustees of the University.”
He suggested the Queen’s Faculty of Law should seize the moment “to reflect upon how it might better perform its duty of furthering the commitment to reconciliation and equality,” noting his commitment to bring more Black and Indigenous students and faculty into the school. He also detailed plans to form a committee of students, faculty, and alumni to investigate reforms to address structural racism in law and legal education.
“I am very conscious of the fact that upon reading this statement you may well wonder why you are reading another statement by a ‘white guy in a position of authority’ about the impact of law and legal education upon vulnerable minorities,” he said. “In the weeks and months to come, we will think hard about how to amplify the voices of members of those minorities.”
Monuments under fire
The petition launched the same day as another petition from an unrelated group launched, calling for the removal of Sir John A Macdonald’s statue from city park.
A movement to remove monuments to controversial historical statues, many proponents of slavery and colonialism, has gained momentum across parts of the world this month, an apparent off-shoot of protests against systemic, anti-Black racism and police brutality sweeping the United States.
The student coalition behind the renaming petition said they draw inspiration from previous movements such as Oka, Idle No More, #NoDAPL, Black Lives Matter, the fight to rename Robert Sutherland Hall, current demonstrations to support Black trans people, and the advocacy work of Patricia Monture herself.
“Social media is busier and more informational than ever,” one student commented. “People that may not have been taught about the atrocities that were committed against Indigenous peoples are learning through social media campaigns, threads, or simple messages such as tweets or Facebook posts.”
Commemoration of Macdonald’s legacy in Kingston persists as a recurring topic of debate. In January 2018, a local pub formerly known as Sir John’s Public House was renamed to ‘The Public House’ after feedback from community members.
“I am a Mohawk woman, born and raised in Akwesasne, Ontario,” said one of the petition coalition members. “There are subtle ways in which we are able to recognize the damaging legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald…such as not knowing the Mohawk language, Kanienkeha, fluently. Living on a reserve, being bound to these small parcels of land that were allotted during the time that the reserve system was introduced.”
“My grandmother was taken from her home and was put into a school off-reserve, where she was forced to live with a non-Indigenous family during the week, to attend school and get a ‘real,’ westernized education,” she said. “I cannot confidently talk and boast about my law school, that I have worked so hard to be accepted into, as my faculty building is named after the most genocidal and violent figure in Canadian history.”