Naming Buildings: A useful debate – Cardozo



The controversy around naming buildings, it’s actually a good debate
We need to welcome the debate and not hurl insults at those we disagree with. This is an opportunity to understand discrimination present and past. Second, as we become a more egalitarian and diverse society, the dominant group and culture cannot have the only say or the final say on who and what is important.

Sir John A. Macdonald, first prime minister of Canada. Photograph courtesy of Notman & Son/Library and Archives Canada


PUBLISHED : Monday, Sept. 11, 2017 12:00 AM

OTTAWA—Sir John A. Macdonald: yes or no? It goes well beyond our first prime minister.

What’s interesting is that there are several different forces at play and the debate is a proxy for debating who we are as Canadians.

The first strand is the view that buildings and schools should only be named after people are highly respectable and devoid of controversy, not those who espoused ideas or enacted policies that were discriminatory against any group of Canadians.

Second, is the issue of privilege, or in more understandable terms, the dominant group. The dominant group not only dominates in several spheres of influence, such as politics, business, and media, but also defines what is the norm for society, what is the culture and what is important.

Third is diversity and inclusion—having the totality of Canada reflected in all spheres of life—not only the dominant group—having buildings and the likes named after women and men and people of various cultural backgrounds.

Fourth, we are judging people from the past by the values of today.

Then there is the fifth strand at play here and that is the influence of a similar debate south of the border about erasing racist Confederate heroes, which turned terribly ugly with the return of racial street fights into the American political debate, with a president seemingly to defend the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists.

The fact is that most things are named after historically significant people and just about every country has a plethora of people who are so honoured because of their nation-building contributions and, in most places, they are men from the dominant communities. In Canada, that plays out as men of Anglo-Saxon Protestant background and to a lesser extent francophones in Quebec, although there was a healthy presence of anglophones there until recent decades.

In 2012, Status of Women Canada put together a list of 29 women who federal buildings could be named after—yes only 29. There are some great names on this list, such as Ellen Fairclough, Gabrielle Roy, Jeanne Sauvé and Bertha Wilson, but it was still rather superficial—the first woman to do this, that, and the other. More in-depth research might well find others who achieved more and the list surprisingly lacks diversity. Only one Indigenous woman and no women of colour. Never mind Adrienne Clarkson, Michaëlle Jean, Eva Ariuk, Daphne Odjig, and Rosemary Brown.

Residential schools existed through the administrations of every prime minster from John A. Macdonald to Pierre Trudeau. Indigenous peoples and other minorities could not vote until the middle of the last century. Gay sex was not allowed until Pearson (and Pierre Trudeau, his justice minister). Same-sex marriage was illegal until the Chrétien-Martin period. The list goes on.

That’s not to say we should not hold various of our leaders, and all political parties, MPs, newspaper editors, and opinion leaders who agreed with them, responsible.

The recent motion by an Ontario teachers’ union to remove the name of Sir John A MacDonald from all schools because of his role in establishing residential schools sent a shock wave through many who revere Macdonald or other notable figures after whom schools are named.

So how do you deal with this?

A Yale University report from last year suggests some principles that can be applied when deciding which names stay and which ones go. It’s a helpful approach, but by no means a perfect solution. The first question to consider is: “Is a principal legacy of the namesake fundamentally at odds with the mission of the university?” The question assumes that everyone will agree what the principal legacy is. Take Louis Riel. A hero and national builder to some, a traitor to others.

Among the Famous Five, who advanced women’s rights, were eugenicists who wanted to erase some races and people with disabilities. And Tommy Douglas, the “Greatest Canadian,” said of homosexuality that it was a mental illness that needed to be treated sympathetically by psychologists.

And Macdonald? He is undoubtedly the key architect and driving force of the great Canadian Confederation, which was based on the principles of respect for diversity of English and French. But the Fathers of Confederation excluded the people who were here first, the Indigenous peoples, and purposefully decided to exclude them until such time as they could be assimilated. Colonialists.

Indigenous peoples, of course, had the most open immigration policy in the history of this land and allowed the newcomers to not only bring their old way, but make their old ways and religions the dominant ways in this land. So, Confederation. A great accomplishment? Or a great subjugation of the people who were here first? An act of European supremacy?

The expansion of Canada across Turtle Island after 1867 is a history of wars against certain First Nations and clever treaty signing that left the original people in the backwaters by the foreign colonizers.

But here’s the thing. As Sir John A. dreamt the grand alliance between English and French, he—and most of his colleagues and successors—were all part of the massive and overt plan to subjugate First Nations, Inuit, and Métis in a way that still has consequences today. That’s why it may be a little hard for a Cree kid to delight at the idea of going to Sir John A. Macdonald High School.

So what was Sir John A.’s principal legacy? It depends who you talk to. For most long-time students of Canadian history and political science, it was Confederation. But listening to the debate lately, one can be a little confused. At the very least we need to understand the different perspectives.

And, as Senator Murray Sinclair said recently, this is what reconciliation looks like. It’s about debating ideas and listening to each other. It’s not always comfortable. Sinclair prefers to honour various Indigenous people rather than take Macdonald’s name off.

Back to the forces at play: we need to welcome the debate and not hurl insults at those we disagree with. This is an opportunity to understand discrimination present and past. Second, as we become a more egalitarian and diverse society, the dominant group and culture cannot have the only say or the final say on who and what is important. Third, let’s get the full diversity of the women and men reflected in things we name after people—it may seem more evened out then. Fourth, some acceptance of changing values and norms should be acceptable and this is a hard one.

And the American strand? We just have to live with it, but not let it dominate our debates.

Andrew Cardozo is president of the Pearson Centre (a Pearson fan) and an adjunct professor at Carleton University.

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