Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: “We are not the makers of history, we are made by history.”Perhaps now, more than ever, these words ring true.
As Canadians, we need to understand our history, learn from historical mistakes, and celebrate the events, groups, and leaders that have led us to where we are today and consequently charted our path forward.
I am truly shocked and appalled by the City of Victoria’s recent decision to remove a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald from the grounds outside Victoria City Hall. The same Sir John A. Macdonald who is a Founding Father, the first Prime Minister of Canada, and who was truly a Canadian leader.
The entire notion of the Confederation of Canada was the conception of Sir John A. Macdonald.
This is who the City of Victoria’s Council has decided is not worthy of commemoration. This is part of a broader movement to limit the legacies of Canadian historical figures to their worst qualities, actions, and beliefs. The movement dwells on the bad and forgets the good. It focuses on regression rather than progress as if to say that these leaders embody everything that is wrong with Canada. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Was Sir John A. perfect? No. Did he have a part to play in the residential school system? Yes. And while this is not to be ignored or forgotten, it is not cause to ignore and eliminate the important work that Macdonald did to build the very foundation for where we are today.
Macdonald was the very first Canadian to attempt to give Aboriginal Canadians the right to vote. At the time, a revolutionary proposition. Macdonald proposed a system that extended the vote to both Aboriginals and to women (more than a third of a century ahead of women gaining enfranchisement in Canada). All of this is to say that while Macdonald made mistakes, he took leaps and bounds to build a nation – and build a nation he did.
It is important to note that the steps taken by Macdonald to give women and Aboriginal Canadians the vote were later reversed by another Canadian Prime Minister – Sir Wilfrid Laurier. The same Wilfrid Laurier that increased the Chinese head tax five-fold and took similar actions that, by today’s standards, would be deemed unacceptable. Much like Macdonald, Laurier is remembered through statues and public institutions carrying his name, most notably Sir Wilfrid Laurier University and Laurier House (deemed a National Historic site by the Canadian Government). I am not calling for Laurier to be stripped of these commemorations. He was an important Canadian who contributed to our great country by building bridges between French and English Canadians.
Even Tommy Douglas, visionary of universal healthcare and considered by many to be the greatest Canadian of all time held views that would be appalling today. Douglas firmly believed in the forced segregation and sterilization of what he considered “subnormal” people (those “whose mental rating was low, whose moral standards are below normal, and who were subject to social disease or so improvident as to be a public charge”). He proposed “improvements” to
marriage laws that would certify a couple’s fitness to procreate. His ultimate goal was to erase these “subnormal people” from the pool of genetics in Canada. Should these views preclude Douglas from being remembered as the visionary behind universal healthcare? No, they should not.
All of this is to say that throughout history, all of our leaders have not been perfect by today’s standards. Progress is often times not a sprint, but a marathon and is quite often a messy process. Canada is a relatively young country with a relatively short list of leaders that have shaped our great nation. If we doom all of these great visionaries to the dark pages of history we will have very little to be proud of and celebrate.
We need to remember those important words of Martin Luther King, Jr. We cannot rewrite the history that we are a product of. Rather, we must learn from the mistakes, celebrate the successes, and look forward to the future that, because of these leaders, we can choose to create.
Larry Miller, MP