Brian Lee Crowley: We owe Sir John A. Macdonald measured gratitude, not vilification
Should efforts to exile Canada’s pre-eminent founder, Sir John A. Macdonald, to the scrap heap of history be allowed to succeed? No. Anger at monuments and memorials misunderstands our history and misdirects our energy. It is not with the dead but with the living that lies the responsibility to realize further the promise of Canada. And that is why, for example, Sen. Murray Sinclair’s call to celebrate Indigenous heroes rather than vilify Sir John A. strikes the right balance.
Those who seek to expunge Sir John A.’s name from schools and monuments see our history as a caricature filled solely with racism, sexism, homophobia, colonialism, militarism, genocide and environmental destruction. These are never weighed, however, against our impressive record of constitutional evolution, our incredible feats of nation-building infrastructure and institutions, our reconciliation of contending cultures, languages and religions and our tradition of sacrifice to preserve the values that we thought most important.
It is easy to criticize the past and the decisions made there. But it is a conceit of each and every generation that it alone is free from poor judgments, intellectual shortcomings and historical myopia. Rare is the succeeding generation that agrees.
Looking solely at our past errors is not the right standard by which to measure Canada or Sir John A. and their great achievements. Remember, poverty, squalor, filth, disease and intolerance have been humanity’s lot since the beginning; taken together they are not the exception but the default condition of human beings. Only a handful of societies have figured out, slowly and painfully, the institutions and behaviours that allow people to escape these ills.
Canada is at the forefront of those nations and it is thanks to our history of successful struggle against the worst human afflictions that our critics can look back in horror at how things used to be. It is the progress made possible by the economic, social and, yes, moral advances of our forebears that has allowed us to enjoy peace, order and good government in generous measure.
Confederation itself was no exercise in crude majoritarian triumphalism, but an exquisitely wrought compromise between contending cultures, languages and religions that has made us one of the longest-enduring political orders on the planet. We have constantly expanded our notion of rights in response to genuine wrongs and real grievances. Canadian blood and treasure were expended in righteous struggles such as the Second World War and Korea because when the world called, we were not found wanting. As we have become wealthier we have worked to improve our environment, our education and our social supports.
This generation is the one called upon to right the many wrongs done to Indigenous peoples in our history. In this regard, I am inordinately proud that my institute is best known for its work on how Indigenous people, industry and governments can work collaboratively to break down the obstacles to full Aboriginal participation in the modern economy. In so doing we are not running counter to our namesakes’ inheritance, but rather modernizing it in accordance with the evolution of Canadians’ thinking.
Like the American Founding Fathers, Sir John A. and our other founders were inspired by a vision of human freedom and flourishing, but being imperfect human beings their prejudices prevented them from understanding the potential of every human being to benefit from the rights and freedoms they so rightly extolled. The subsequent history of both countries has been shaped in part by the struggle to enlarge the circle of those rights and freedoms to all: women, oppressed minorities, Indigenous people and others. Americans fought a civil war, not to repudiate their founding, but to extend its benefits to those wrongly excluded.
Every time we expanded the franchise, enlarged the circle of immigration, enhanced minority rights and, most recently, sought reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, we have done so using language, concepts and aspirations that informed Confederation. That is why the argument of those previously excluded had such moral force: They appealed to concepts such as rights and equality that have long been part of our heritage but were imperfectly understood and applied. A balanced view of our past acknowledges the imperfections of what was done but also the soundness of the vision that inspired it and the effort made to fix our errors. We cannot change the past, but it does not require us to despise our past to say that our job is to ensure past mistakes shall not be tolerated on our watch.
True patriots love Canada because it has made us (including those who have come to join us from other countries) who we are; and who we are, for all our flaws, is a standard to which much of the rest of the world rightly aspires. Sir John A. was neither angel nor devil, but a fallible human being who accomplished great things. He is owed our thoughtful, measured thanks.
Brian Lee Crowley is the managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (macdonaldlaurier.ca).