Measuring Canada’s history and those who helped make us great

It’s a conceit of every generation that they alone are free from poor judgments, intellectual shortcomings and historical myopia

Should efforts to exile Canada’s pre-eminent founder, Sir John A. Macdonald, to the scrapheap of history be allowed to succeed? No. Anger at monuments and memorials misunderstands our history and misdirects our energy.

The responsibility lies not with the dead but with the living to realize further the promise of Canada. That’s why, for example, Sen. Murray Sinclair’s call to celebrate Indigenous heroes rather than vilifying Macdonald strikes the right balance.

Those who seek to expunge Macdonald’s name from schools and monuments see our history as a caricature filled solely with racism, sexism, homophobia, colonialism, militarism, genocide and environmental destruction.

These are never weighed, however, against our impressive record of constitutional evolution, our incredible feats of nation-building infrastructure and institutions, our reconciliation of contending cultures, languages and religions, and our tradition of sacrifice to preserve the values that we thought most important.

It’s easy to criticize the past and the decisions made there. But it’s a conceit of every generation that they alone are free from poor judgments, intellectual shortcomings and historical myopia. Rare is the succeeding generation that agrees.

Looking solely at our past errors is not the right standard by which to measure Canada or Macdonald, and their great achievements.

Poverty, squalor, filth, disease and intolerance have been humanity’s lot since the beginning. They’re not the exception, they’re the default condition of humans. Only a handful of societies have figured out, slowly and painfully, the institutions and behaviours that allow people to escape these ills.

Canada is at the forefront of those nations and it’s thanks to our history of successful struggle against the worst human afflictions that our critics can look back in horror at how things used to be. It’s the progress made possible by the economic, social and, yes, moral advances of our forebears that allow us to enjoy peace, order and good government in generous measure.

Confederation was no exercise in crude majoritarian triumphalism. It was an exquisitely wrought compromise between contending cultures, languages and religions that has made us one of the longest-enduring political orders on the planet. We have constantly expanded our notion of rights in response to genuine wrongs and real grievances.

Canadian blood and treasure were expended in righteous struggles like the Second World War and the Korean War because when the world called, we were not found wanting.

As we have become wealthier, we have worked to improve our environment, our education and our social supports.

This generation is the one called upon to right the many wrongs done to Indigenous peoples in our history. In this regard, I’m inordinately proud that my institute is best known for its work on how Indigenous people, industry and governments can work collaboratively to break down the obstacles to full participation in the modern economy. In so doing, we’re not running counter to our namesakes’ inheritance, but rather modernizing it in accordance with the evolution of Canadians’ thinking.

Like the American founding fathers, Macdonald and our other founders were inspired by a vision of human freedom and flourishing. But being imperfect humans, their prejudices prevented them from understanding the potential of every human to benefit from the rights and freedoms they so rightly extolled. The history of both countries has been shaped in part by the struggle to enlarge the circle of those rights and freedoms to all: women, oppressed minorities, Indigenous people and others. Americans fought a civil war not to repudiate their founding but to extend its benefits to those wrongly excluded.

Every time we expanded the franchise, enlarged the circle of immigration, enhanced minority rights and, most recently, sought reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, we’ve done so using language, concepts and aspirations that informed Confederation.

That’s why the argument of those previously excluded had such moral force: they appealed to concepts like rights and equality that have long been part of our heritage, but were imperfectly understood and applied.

A balanced view of our past acknowledges the imperfections of what was done, but also the soundness of the vision that inspired it and the effort made to fix our errors. We can’t change the past, but it doesn’t require us to despise our past to say that our job is to ensure past mistakes shall not be tolerated on our watch.

True patriots love Canada because it has made us (including those who have come to join us from other countries) who we are. And who we are, for all our flaws, is a standard to which much of the rest of the world rightly aspires.

Sir John A. Macdonald was neither angel nor devil, but a fallible human who accomplished great things. He’s owed our thoughtful, measured thanks.

Brian Lee Crowley is the managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (macdonaldlaurier.ca).


John A. Macdonald

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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