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Sir John A. Macdonald: Historians weigh in on renaming Calgary junior high school

The Reconciliation Action Group’s call to rename a northwest Calgary junior high school was given a boost on Friday, after a pair of Canadian historians sent letters in support to the Calgary Board of Education.

Dr. Carmen Nielson, an associate professor at Mount Royal University, and Dr. Sean Carleton, assistant professor at the University of Manitoba and formerly at Mount Royal University, wrote the letters calling for Sir John A. Macdonald junior high to be renamed.

The Reconciliation Action Group is supporting the student-led effort to rename the Huntington Hills-Thorncliffe-area school.

At issue is Macdonald’s complicated legacy as both the first Prime Minister of Canada, but also a primary architect of Canada’s residential school system.

“For many Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, Macdonald has become, quite rightly, a symbol of Canada’s racist past,” wrote Dr. Nielson.

“Therefore, continuing to memorialize Macdonald perpetuates the idea that Canada’s history of racism can be simply ignored or explained away.”

Removing name doesn’t erase history

For the Reconciliation Action Group, removing Sir John A. Macdonald’s name isn’t about erasing him from history, as some critics have suggested is the motivation for similar actions across the nation.

“The issue isn’t ‘should we stop talking about him?’ We won’t,” said Sarah Flynn with the group.

“He still did everything he did, but what we’re seeing the issue is, ‘should his name be in a position of honour on a public building?'”

Flynn said that it would be a hard sell to ask people to see the difference between understanding historical figures for their complexities, and calling for their names being removed from buildings. The good things Macdonald did, and the bad things as well, would still remain a part of Canadian history.

“You know, it will be hard for a lot of people, but our hope is that as people learn more about the details of the true history they will come to, through their own decency, appreciate that the history is more complex than we may have learned,” she said.

Flynn argued that this gives people in the northwest community an opportunity to reflect on what they value now.

“This is a chance for us to talk about that,” she said.

She said that the discovery of hundreds of bodies in mass graves at a Kamloops residential school in 2021 has begun to help people understand the past in a more concrete way than they may have understood it before.

“There was for a time there was a window of openness, where people’s shock at that discovery, helped them to be open to learning a more nuanced, more complete, more honest history of this land.”

Historians say renaming falls within the spirit of the TRC

Dr. Carleton said that renaming the junior high school would present an opportunity for the CBE to engage in the spirit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“Reflecting on the suitability of the Sir John A. Macdonald school name is an opportunity to think about the CBE’s—and Calgary’s—commitment to reconciliation,” he wrote.

He said that this would provide a teaching opportunity for students, staff, and community members about the importance of history education, commemoration, and respectful teaching and learning in the era of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Dr. Nielson acknowledged in her letter that the CBE was committed to a culture of inclusion.

“The Board ought to acknowledge that honouring a Prime Minister whose policies deliberately excluded and harmed those who were not racially white contradicts these laudable goals,” she wrote.

She said that the failure to rename the school was calling the work by the CBE to collaborate with Indigenous education teams and Elder advisors to fall short.

Petition unlikely to change name of school

Currently, Flynn said, the high threshold for gathering sufficient signatures to meet the CBE’s petition policy makes it difficult to go that route to rename the school. A minimum of 5,000 names must be collected from residents 18 years or older within the CBE board boundaries, and must be counter signed by a witness, present at the time of signing, attesting to these conditions.

“If your jaw hit the floor when I said that number, that’s rightfully so because that would be almost impossible to do within Calgary,” said Flynn.

She said that because of this, it isn’t realistic to engage in using a petition to rename the school.

Additionally complicating that route is that the efforts to rename Sir John A. Macdonald junior high are student-led, none of whom would be of age to sign the petition.

The group is attempting to use other methods to pressure the CBE, such as engaging in protest and employing experts on Indigenous and Canadian history to weigh in on the topic.

“We are trying to generate citizen engagement with our, you know, peaceful, non-violent actions at the site of the school,” said Flynn.

Complicated history for Macdonald

McDonald has been historically viewed as a nation builder for his role in Canada’s Confederation, and for supporting the creation of the transcontinental railway. During his administration the provinces of British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, and the territories that would become Alberta and Saskatchewan would become part of Confederation. He is also seen as helping to forge the first national identity for Canada separate from the United Kingdom.

More forgotten from that time period was the collapse of his Conservative government. Bribes were solicited by George-Etienne Cartier and Hector-Louis Langevin for the 1872 election in exchange for the contract to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. This resulted in a scandal that caused the government to fall in 1873. Macdonald claimed at the time he had not personally benefited.

Macdonald served as the Minister of Indian Affairs, and later as the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs during his second time as Prime Minister. It was during this time that the residential school system in Canada was established. It was also during this time that Indian Affairs officials withheld food from Indigenous people not on reserves in order to clear land for the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

The City of Calgary’s Langevin Bridge was renamed Reconciliation Bridge in 2017. The CBE’s Langevin School was renamed to its original name of Riverside School in 2021 after the discovery of mass graves at a Kamloops residential school. Langevin served as the Minister of Public Works under the Macdonald government, which established the first residential schools in the country.

Writing to the CBE, Dr. Carleton called Macdonald’s legacy one nation-building, but also nation-destroying.

“While Sir John A. Macdonald was undoubtedly an important politician and nation-builder, the historical record is clear that he also played an instrumental role in initiating, supporting, and defending Canada’s genocidal Indian Residential School system, among other harmful policies targeting Indigenous Peoples.”