KINGSTON — Paul Fortier, owner of the former Sir John’s Public House, saw changing attitudes toward Canada’s first prime minister reach a boiling point last Labour Day weekend. An “I love Sir John A” promotion encouraged patrons to tell their server they love Macdonald in exchange for a discounted meal and a pint. The event backfired explosively, sparking a social media backlash and leading to a demonstration organized by the Kingston chapter of Idle No More.
Protesters hanged an effigy of Macdonald, used a megaphone to broadcast “their message of the wrongs Macdonald committed against Indigenous people.”
Fortier says in the ensuing days, he was called a white supremacist, a racist, even a homophobe (as a gay man, Fortier found that charge particularly puzzling).
Then Fortier changed the pub’s name to remove the offending “Sir John,” and the story made national headlines. “We want to be known as a safe place for people, and Indigenous people were telling us they did not feel safe here,” he recalls. “That needed to change.”
The move attracted a whole new round of criticism. “The harassment I got on one side, started coming from the other side. I was called a Canada-hater. I was called a traitor,” Fortier says. On social media, people called him a “spineless wimp who caved to [the] PC brigade.” An anonymous caller identified himself as a local competitor and said he hoped the business would go bankrupt, so the caller could buy the restaurant and restore Macdonald’s name. As well, Fortier says he received four death threats from Sir John A. supporters.
“I pissed off everybody.”
As Macdonald’s hometown for most of his life, Kingston has traditionally taken great pride in its connection to Canada’s first prime minister. But over the past several years, residents have found themselves under pressure to take sides in an evolving debate over Macdonald’s legacy, especially his role in Canada’s troubled relations with its Indigenous people. And because pleading no opinion or supporting the status quo can both be taken as endorsing Macdonald’s legacy, some Kingstonians are finding it impossible to stay on the fence.
Last summer, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario made headlines when it passed a resolution that called on school boards to rename schools named after Macdonald, citing his “key role in developing systems that [perpetrated] genocide against Indigenous people.”
At Queen’s Park, both the governing Liberals and opposition PCs criticized the resolution, and Kingston’s Limestone District School Board declined to change the name of such schools. The board says “the best way to lead on this issue is through public education,” and that it believes it has a mandate “to embrace all of Canada’s history, including the role of residential schools in our classrooms, in an age-appropriate way.”
Another name-change debate will come up in May, when the Canadian Historical Association will make its final decision on whether to change the name of the Sir John A. Macdonald Prize, the prestigious annual prize given to the best scholarly book on Canadian history.
At times it has become dangerous to show oneself as an admirer of the first prime minister. In 2013, the Macdonald statue in City Park, just east of Queen’s University’s campus, was vandalized on the eve of what would have been Macdonald’s 198th birthday. The words “murderer” and “colonizer” were spray painted on the statue.
Then in 2016, Arthur Milnes, who had served as commissioner of the Sir John A. Macdonald Bicentennial Commission, was targeted at his home by vandals who slashed his tires, poured red paint on his car, and burned a Canadian flag underneath it.
Milnes, a Kingston journalist and speechwriter (he had worked for former prime minister Stephen Harper), had organized an annual birthday celebration at Macdonald’s statue. He cancelled the event 2017 and 2018 over public safety concerns at the event. (Milnes did not wish to comment for this article, citing concerns for his personal safety.)
Krista Flute, one of the organizers of Idle No More in Kingston, says the group can take credit for halting the Macdonald celebrations in the city.
“We stopped the toast at the statue,” she says. “I’m an Indigenous woman from the Plains. [Macdonald] ordered the clearing of the Plains. He helped create the residential school system. He instituted the Indian Act. I despise him.”
The Court of Public Opinion
The scrutiny of Macdonald’s legacy comes at a time when many Canadians are becoming increasingly conscious of the history of how governments have treated Indigenous people. The Idle No More movement, which first gained prominence in 2012 when then-Attawapiskat First Nation chief Theresa Spence began a six-week hunger strike in protest of substandard living conditions in her community, put Indigenous issues in the national spotlight. So, too, did the release of the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in June 2015, which described Canada’s residential school policy as “cultural genocide.”
“Mostly why we came to do protest against the statue was to encourage Canadians to change their view, and stop honouring a man who built a country by genocide. It's nothing to be proud of,” Flute says. “We have seen the conversation shift. There are definitely more non-Indigenous people who support this view.”
Last week, CBC Radio's program Ideas taped a posthumous “trial” of Sir John A. Macdonald at Queen’s campus. The prosecutor for the mock proceeding was Jean Teillet, a founder of the Métis Nation of Ontario and great-grandniece of Louis Riel. Lawyer Frank Addario argued for the defence, and former Supreme Court justice Ian Binnie presided. Macdonald was “prosecuted” on two counts: knowingly conducting a reign of terror against the Métis people of Manitoba, and withholding food from First Nations people, causing thousands of deaths by starvation.
The broadcast will reveal Binnie’s verdict when it airs April 11 on CBC Radio One. As for the court of public opinion? The audience, which seemed to include a large quotient of students and nearly filled the university's new Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts, demonstrated its verdict via an unscientific show of hands. The majority believed Macdonald was guilty as charged.
Laura Murray, an English professor at Queen’s who teaches a course on European and Indigenous stories of Cataraqui (the First Nations name for what would eventually become Kingston), is encouraged by what she sees as a “demographic shift” in attitude towards Macdonald and Canada’s colonial history. She sees older generations of Kingstonians who have “extreme affection” for Macdonald giving way to younger people who are more interested in the complexity of Macdonald’s character and his contributions to Canadian history.
Murray has been outspoken on the need for Kingston itself to rethink its relationship with Macdonald. At the same time, she says the debate over whether to erase his name from the Kingston landscape is polarizing, and not particularly interesting.
“My interest isn’t demonizing Macdonald, or those who choose to celebrate his life,” Murray says. “It just gets really boring to hear these stories of our ‘saintly’ founders. All of this is my reaction to getting sick of hearing about Macdonald.”
And while some want to remove Macdonald’s statue from City Park altogether, Murray points to an interesting suggestion from one of her students about how future generations could approach Macdonald and other unsavoury (and unavoidable) aspects of Canadian history. “He had this really simple idea that Macdonald’s statue should stay put, but it should be brought down to the eye level. That is so genius. Leave him there but bring him down. It would of course make him more vulnerable.”
Shades of Grey
Not everyone has been pleased by the shifting conversation around Macdonald. Some believe that despite how his policies affected Canada’s Indigenous people, on balance he was a brilliant statesman who played a starring role in creating this country as we now know it.
Tom Axworthy, who is perhaps best known as a former speechwriter and principal secretary to former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, lived in Kingston for years while he taught at Queen’s University’s School of Policy Studies. He thinks the casting of Macdonald as a villain is too simplistic. “There are very few white hats and black hats in history. History is various shades of grey,” Axworthy says. “Like most political figures, Macdonald has a career with some blemishes, but in latter days it’s been only the blemishes which have gotten all the attention.”
Axworthy admits Macdonald’s handling of the western expansion and the Indigenous file — Macdonald remains Canada’s longest-serving minister of Indigenous affairs — were serious failures in an “otherwise brilliant career.”
But is Macdonald guilty of genocide, as some of his detractors would argue? Axworthy thinks not. “Life is full of complexities. That's what history teaches us, by the way.”
Others see the current anti-Macdonald narrative as historical revisionism. In 2014 Richard Gwyn, who wrote a two-part biography of Macdonald, penned a defence of Macdonald in The Walrus. Among the many issues Gwyn tackled was the allegation that Macdonald used famine to clear the First Nations people in the prairies from their traditional territories.
“In the nineteenth century, and for decades afterwards, Canadian governments did nothing to help anyone without a job or a home, or who was sick or injured,” Gwyn wrote, arguing that as odd as it seems today, a response to this crisis from a government would have been unthinkable at the time. “Charity was the responsibility of the churches.”
Remembering 'Old Tomorrow'
University of Regina professor James Daschuk, whose work focuses on environmental change and its effect on Indigenous health, says neither Kingston nor Canada will ever be able to remove Macdonald from its history. “How you think about Macdonald might be a fulcrum for if you think change is needed in this country,” says the author of Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics, and Aboriginal Loss of Life, an account of the devastating effects that Canadian policy had on the Indigenous way of life. (Ironically, Daschuk’s book won the 2014 Sir John A. Macdonald Prize.)
“If you think Canada is working OK, you’re probably going to be OK with Macdonald. But if you think Canada is fundamentally flawed — say, on Indigenous issues — if you think that fundamental flaw is significant, you probably have a different view of Macdonald’s legacy.”
To help inform their views, Daschuk says Canadians can start by reading the 2015 final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “There is an urgent need to develop historically literate citizens, to understand how the past influences the present and will shape the future.”
Where does Kingston stand, as the attitudes darken against its once-favourite son? As part of the city’s activities for the 150th anniversary of confederation in 2017, the city hired inter-cultural planner Terri-Lynn Brennan to help expand the dialogue around Macdonald to be more inclusive of Indigenous perspectives. Brennan, who identifies as Mohawk and British, acknowledges Macdonald will remain part of the city’s story about itself, one way or another. “If Kingston didn't have that story to sell, what else would they sell? We have him everywhere because he is an economic driver. The same way George Washington is in the States.”
A few months after the name change, business is steady at the former Sir John’s Public House, now called just “The Public House.” Fortier says the move wasn’t simply a business decision made to placate the protesters and stop the bad press — although that was certainly a factor. He says he wanted to make a gesture that would lend legitimacy to the complaints being levelled against the pub’s namesake. He wanted to demonstrate that he was listening.
Yet Fortier has seen to it that the pub has not banished Macdonald altogether. A four-foot tall portrait of a young (not-yet-“sir”) John A. hangs on a wall on the second floor of The Public House, just a stone’s throw away from the cobblestone roads that surround Kingston city hall and its market square. His likeness watches over the room that housed his law office more than 150 years ago.
“This was John A. Macdonald’s law office from 1849 to 1860 — and always will have been John A. Macdonald’s law office,” says Fortier, who worked for Library and Archives Canada before moving to Kingston. “As a former historian, I have great appreciation for the contributions that John A. Macdonald made. We were not throwing Macdonald out with the bath water.”
DISCLOSURE: The author played the role of Sir John A. Macdonald in a travelling theatre company between 2010 and 2014. The historical theatre productions were a project of the Sir John A. Macdonald Bicentennial Commission.
CORRECTION: March 24, 2018: An earlier version of this story wrongly indicated that Krista Flute told TVO she does not condone vandalism. We have removed that wording and updated the article. TVO regrets the error.
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