Peter Finch won the Oscar for best actor at the Academy Awards 40 years ago for an unforgettable performance about a news anchor who couldn’t take all of life’s BS anymore.
Finch, playing Howard Beale in the film Network, urged his viewers to run to the window, open it, stick their heads out and shout: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”
Professor Joe Martin, who teaches Canadian business history at the Rotman School of Management, knows exactly how Howard Beale feels.
In fact, Martin gave a speech last week at the Albany Club, Toronto’s historic Tory hangout, in which he used that same line from Network to express his anger at what he feels are the unjust and all-too-frequent attacks on John A. Macdonald.
What in particular has motivated Martin’s ire? Apparently, the last straw was the August motion by the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario urging school boards in the province to rename any of their schools and buildings named after John A. Macdonald.
“The motion recognizes that Macdonald has been celebrated based on an incomplete version of Canadian history,” it states. “As a central architect of the Indian Act and residential schools, Macdonald played a key role in developing systems that perpetuated genocide against Indigenous people. Passing this motion recognizes the impact this history has on all of our students, but specifically on Indigenous students, parents and educators.”
But Martin is pushing back at what he perceives as an increasingly common “portrayal of John A. as a racist alcoholic” that overshadows the prime minister’s undeniable place in Canadian history, as a driving force in the negotiations that led to Confederation and a visionary who united the country from sea-to-sea with the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Reading some of the Hansard debates in the House of Commons from Macdonald’s time, Martin found that the prime minister brought in the first voting rights act for Indigenous men in 1885. After the violent North-West Resistance, political pressure led to the law being amended to exclude many Indigenous groups , but it was Macdonald’s original intention to allow Indigenous men across the land to vote. Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier repealed the act 13 years later.
Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, it was Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie’s Liberal government that brought in the first and now much-reviled Indian Act, not Macdonald’s.
Martin quotes Macdonald as saying: “I greatly regret being obliged to state that the entire failure of the usual food supply of the Indians in the North-west … has continued during the present season, and has involved the necessity of a large expenditure in order to save them from absolute starvation.” Martin continues: “There is no evidence of anything close to a Holocaust plot.”
Martin concludes that the elementary teachers’ portrayal of Macdonald “is grossly unfair and I am mad as hell about it and I ask you to take the truth out of (here) and shout it from the rooftops.”
Martin’s view has some sympathy with historian Patrice Dutil, whose new book, Prime Ministerial Power in Canada: Its Origins under Macdonald, Laurier and Borden, touches on these subjects.
“There's no doubt that Macdonald's reputation has been sullied over the past few months,” Dutil tells me in an email. “Mostly, this has been done by people who are little acquainted with the historical record. The task now, on both sides of the debate, is to put up some evidence that goes beyond hearsay. They both have a lot of work to do.”
Martin, originally a Westerner who was once executive assistant to former Manitoba Progressive Conservative premier Duff Roblin back in the 1960s, acknowledges his message is a tough sell nowadays. Efforts to engage in reconciliation with Indigenous communities and heightened sensitivity to past injustices that was long overdue has made defending Canada’s old white guys increasingly problematic.
But Martin says that’s no excuse for what he sees as the needless libelling of a great man.
“Sir John A. had the capacity for flexible tactics in the service of an unchanging long-range purpose, the hallmarks of great political leadership throughout history,” Martin says. “John A. is here to stay.”
Full disclosure: Joe Martin’s daughter is a producer on The Agenda.
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