June 7, 2021 Editor

John A. Macdonald can wait

Stephen Maher: We are at the beginning, not the end, of a process of reassessing our history, and filling in the silences that are needed to get at the truth

Listen to this article


photo above: Shoes sit in front of the Parliament buildings during a ceremony on June 3, 2021 in Ottawa (Adrian Wyld/CP) 

WN: It is the human condition that historians from within a culture generally silence any contrary narrative that might put into a negative light the moral rectitude of that culture/nation: a variation of the observation that history is always written by the victors, not the vanquished.

Sir Winston Churchill was no doubt right too that if we do not learn from history, we are destined to repeat it. He and Allies however used the language of inducing citizen terror in support of Britain’s Bomber Command headed by Sir Arthur Harris. We read:

An Associated Press war correspondent named Howard Cowan soon filed a dispatch (which inexplicably cleared the censors) stating that “the Allied air commanders have made the long-awaited decision to adopt deliberate terror bombing of German population centers as a ruthless expedient to hastening Hitler’s doom.” The report was widely circulated in the United States, to awkward effect. Among other things, Cowan’s phrase “the Allied air chiefs” linked the British and the Americans in ways that the Americans found uncongenial. (Sifting Dresden’s Ashes: Sixty years after the Allies’ bombing of Dresden enveloped the city in flames, controversy persists over whether the attack was militarily justified or morally indefensible. But another question, no less crucial, is seldom asked: Did wartime conditions allow military leaders to look away as they violated their own principles?, Tami Davis Biddle, Essays | Spring 2005, Wilson Quarterly Archives. (emphasis added)

Yet we Canadians (and Westerners!) do not like associating our militaries past or present with “terror,” “genocide,” etc. See for instance: Canadian War Museum changes controversial wording on WWII bombing. We too prefer a sanitized history. See more generally my post: Why Canada’s special forces ‘shadow army’ is still fighting ISIS.

One wonders, Churchill notwithstanding, what or whether we Westerners have learned a thing about the inevitable “ethics” of war! For to start with, “ethics” and “war” in the same breath constitutes an oxymoron. When it comes to war, we still keep on repeating . . . The most age-old historical repetition of all time!

Yet again, as the highlighted article indicates, the truth hurts. And the truth will out.

And so indeed: Sir John A. Macdonald can wait.

And yes indeed: Mr. Kenney, good Catholic that you are, our illustrious first Prime Minister was a certified racist1, and, good Anglican that he was, it was under his auspices that the perduring horror of residential schools was initiated. The Truth hurts, and indeed, The Truth will outwhich, however painstakingly, is now happening.

In your denying the truth about Macdonald, it is hard to not think of you as in spirit one with “The Proud Boys,” or with the veterans at Canada’s War Memorial, who are more interested in protecting a mythical white settler narrative that does not square with the Truth. And one wonders: how do you align then with Jesus, who in your (and my!) belief is (the very incarnation of) “The Truth?


Alberta Premier Jason Kenney spoke out against “cancel culture” last week and in defence of Sir John A. Macdonald, the first prime minister of Canada. “I think Canada is worth celebrating,” Kenney said. “I think Canada is a great historical achievement. It is a country that people all around the world seek to join as new Canadians. It is an imperfect country but it is still a great country, just as John Macdonald was an imperfect man, but was still a great leader.”

Kenney was speaking against calls to take Macdonald’s name off schools and remove his statues, which grew louder after the shocking discovery of the unmarked graves of 215 children on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. Macdonald was the architect of the system that led those children to those unmarked graves.

These changes are difficult for Macdonald’s admirers, but leaving the names on schools and the statues standing is much more painful for the victims of the system Macdonald built. It would be heartless, for instance, to ask Indigenous parents to send their children to schools named after the man who caused so much suffering.

And in light of the tragic discovery of the graves, it is appropriate to reconsider whether Macdonald was really a great leader. The bereaved parents would surely not see him that way.

At the time, most settlers—particularly powerful church leaders who stood to harvest souls in the wilderness—believed that the schools would help civilize savage peoples. The fact that the schools were death traps, where children were starved, neglected and subject to terrible abuse, was not part of the story Canadians wanted to tell themselves. Just as slave-holding societies convinced themselves that slavery was part of the natural order—the best thing for the Africans as well as the slave holder—so Canadians believed the schools were good and necessary.

“Built into any system of domination is the tendency to proclaim its own normalcy,” wrote historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot in Silencing the Past: (20th anniversary edition): Power and the Production of History. “To acknowledge resistance as a mass phenomenon is to acknowledge the possibility that something is wrong with the system.”

Trouillot, who spent much of his career studying the tragic history of the Haitian revolution, observed that the omission of facts is always part of producing history.

Indigenous people, who were mostly left out of our history books, are now demanding to be written in, the result of a long struggle to be seen and heard.

We would not know much about what happened at the schools if it had not been for Nora Bernard, a Mi’kmaq woman from Millbrook, N.S., who brought a lawsuit in 1995 that ultimately led to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Please click on: Silencing The Past

Hits: 68

  1. Please see for instance: Sure, John A. Macdonald was a racist, colonizer and misogynist — but so were most Canadians back then. The subtitle reads: Macdonald’s critics are right on all counts, but the man who founded Canada was the product of an age that made Archie Bunker look like Mohandas Gandhi.

    This is not unlike saying that the Allies were bloodthirsty bombers, but so were the Nazi bombers at the time: “inhuman barbarism”–Franklin Roosevelt‘s designation in 1939); etc. . . Except no “Good Guys” historian has used “bloodthirsty” and “inhuman barbarism” of the Allies since! Another word comes to mind: “whitewashing.” And of course to explain is never to excuse . . . []


Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.

%d bloggers like this: