3: That Time I Didn't Repost an Old Column About John A. Macdonald
Shoes left on the steps of Christ Church in Deseronto, ON, a historic chapel built by Loyalist Mohawks. Photo by Jamie Bradburn.
Several weeks ago, while reviewing future reprints for Tales of Toronto, I scheduled an old column about the local press reaction to the death of John A. Macdonald. June 6 marked the 120th anniversary of the passing of Canada’s first post-Confederation prime minister, which seemed like an appropriate time to revisit the piece.
Then came the revelation and reaction to the discovery of the unmarked burial site of 215 Indigenous children at a former residential school near Kamloops.
To repost such a piece about Macdonald at this time, given his government’s role in building the residential school system, is—to put it mildly—insensitive. While Macdonald is a critical figure in Canadian history who made major contributions to shaping the country, discussing the fawning, ludicrous coverage of his death feels like a pointless distraction when the public grasps with tragic aspects of his legacy.
Pondering this decision spurred thoughts on current viewpoints regarding history in general.
Some people, mostly on the sensationalistic right-end of the political spectrum, argue that my decision not to rerun that piece “cancels” history, falling prey to current trends and “wokeness.”
What these critics don’t or choose not to consider is that history evolves and does not remain static. New facts emerge through fresh research, re-examining sources, or contemplating uncomfortable topics. Ways of thinking and interpreting change. Stories grow in complexity, turning old heroes into villains and vice versa. On the day I’m writing this, a statue of Egerton Ryerson, who was celebrated for his contributions to public education but has recently been condemned for his influence on the development of residential schools, was toppled from its perch in front of the university which bears his name.
There will always be extremists and zealots who set themselves for criticism and scapegoating, providing distraction from the discussions that need to happen. But they exist in all facets of life. We can still acknowledge the right things someone accomplished alongside the wrong, as humans are flawed beings.
Revisiting and re-evaluating the past is, for those willing to do the work, a difficult but valuable exercise. Too often we’ve seen the fear, hate, ignorance, intolerance, and violence associated with those who wish history would remain static and fixed according to their viewpoints. Proper contextualization is critical, understanding the motivations behind past actions and their consequences.
“That’s just the way things were” is rarely a satisfying answer.
More thoughts on history practice in the future, both here and in the Tales of Toronto Q&A that (promise!) I will eventually write.