The View From Here – Just because John A. Macdonald was Canada’s first does not mean he was an exemplary prime minister

Tom Henihan

The recent dethroning of John A. Macdonald, both of his statues and stature has predictably caused some heavily contested arguments.

Obviously, in this era of Truth and Reconciliation, what Macdonald represents to indigenous Canadians is abhorrent as it must be to all Canadians familiar with his policies.

The argument made for maintaining Macdonald’s pride of place is if we remove statues and alter the record we are rewriting our story and engaging in acts of revision.

When we use the term “revisionist history,” it is understood as altering the facts to suit contemporary sensibilities, which is a violation of the historic record.

History is the unalterable facts but the writing of history and our response to it is less pure, so continual enquiry and research helps us to have a more enlightened response to who should be lauded and who should have their stature reviewed.

Just because John A. Macdonald was the first prime minister of Canada does not make him a great prime minister or should it afford him posthumous immunity for the crimes he oversaw and perpetrated against First Nations people all across Canada but especially here in the west.

When we speak of history, we speak of the events that forged the society in which we currently live, and what we chose to put in pride of place should, while remaining faithful to the facts, underpin the values that we currently espouse and by which we determine our course for the future.

In a country, that has just celebrated its 150th Anniversary, the ink is not yet dry on the details of our history. So, from our present perspective, it is still early enough to review our story and assign the proper measure and understanding to its protagonists in an effort not to change or rewrite our history but to elucidate it.

History is a series of decisive, immutable facts that constitute the founding of our country, but the response to those facts and the veracity of that story deserve greater scrutiny and through revisiting that story we create the opportunity to draw an honest picture of who we are and the kind of society we aspire to become.

That John A. Macdonald was Canada’s first prime minister simply means that the Canadian federation got off to a bad start but because we started out under his tyrannical “vision” is no reason to ignore the facts and engage in collective self-deception.

That Macdonald was the first prime minister is an indisputable and immutable fact of history and as such it remains a part of our story whether we like it or not.

That John A. Macdonald represents cruel, draconian policies, mercilessly and relentlessly perpetrated against indigenous Canadians is also an indisputable and immutable fact.

The last mentioned historical fact demands, without qualification, that his image is not elevated on marble and granite plinths across the country as if he represents some enlightened beginning or some standard to which we should aspire.

Macdonald represents our most cruel, shameful and grievous mistakes and in that context he should never be forgotten.


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