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We can’t be blind to history’s truth

Lethbridge Herald by Melanee Thomas 16 August 2018

Recently, in response to removing one of John A. Macdonald’s many statues, readers of this paper expressed concern that we must act “before we lose more of our history.”

Removing Macdonald’s statue is not a loss for at least three reasons. First, no one has forgotten who Macdonald is. His bust still sits in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London; his statue still stands in Kingston, Ont.; his face still graces the $10 bill. Nothing has been “lost.”

Second, while Macdonald played important roles in Confederation and the railway, glorifying him for these policies shows ignorance of his public record. Confederation conferences were more drunken parties than high statesmanship. Similarly, the Pacific Scandal arose when Macdonald asked for bribes in exchange for railway contracts. The most explosive evidence shows Macdonald asking for $10,000 in addition to other bribes he had already taken. In today’s dollars, that $10,000 is over $1.5 million. Knowing this, Macdonald merits being seen through a jaundiced eye.

Third, and most dishearteningly, the attitude displayed highlights how racist and intransigent Canadians remain. Make no mistake: Macdonald was responsible for genocidal policy. To call this a mere “indignity” erases the power the Canadian state deliberately used to try to erase Indigenous peoples so that the “right” kind of immigrant – white, Northern European – could take over the land. Many British citizens actively opposed this colonial policy because it was expensive. Thus, Macdonald and others (i.e. John Locke) had to dehumanize Indigenous people in order to sell expensive colonial policy. Anyone who fails to understand this fundamentally fails to understand Canadian history.

What about the idea that we should hold Macdonald to a different standard because he lived and worked in the 19th century? People who might think that should learn about Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce. As a physician, he observed and condemned conditions in residential schools that caused the deaths of between 24 and 69 per cent of the Indigenous children forced to attend them. When he retired, he published his reports in a book entitled “The Story of a National Crime: Being a Record of the Health Conditions of the Indians of Canada from 1904 to 1921.” Where is Dr. Bryce’s statue?

We must ask why some Canadians fight so hard to avoid engaging with the full, nuanced history associated with men like Macdonald. For me, being willfully blind to his historical record is nothing short of racist ignorance. We owe ourselves and our children better than that. We must face our history, genocide and all, unflinchingly.

Melanee Thomas, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Calgary