David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

Look at Broader Context Before Removing Building Names

Brandon Sun, September 11, 2017 – David McConkey

An interesting public conversation is happening right now in both Canada and the U.S. This conversation is about honouring people from the past with monuments or names on public streets and buildings. The problem is that people may not viewed as positively today as were years ago. What should we do about it?

In the U.S., these historical figures include Confederate generals in the American Civil War. Also coming under more scrutiny: their founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson – because they were slave owners.

In Canada, the Ontario elementary teachers’ union urged schools to remove the name of our first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. The criticism of Macdonald relates to indigenous peoples and his policies like the Indian Act.

Endorsing the teachers, indigenous activist Tori Cress writes on the CBC News website that the legacy of Macdonald is one of “residential schools, racism, colonialism and genocide.”
“Indigenous children in Canada shouldn't have to walk into schools bearing the name of the man who created the policies of genocide,” Cress says. “They shouldn't have to see his name on every school letterhead, report card and bulletin board.”
Whoa! Really?

Let’s step back and look at a broader context here.

Remember that there has been moral progress over the years. We cannot judge people of the past by today’s standards. Macdonald would likely be seen today as sexest, racist, anti-LGBT rights, and anti-environmentalist. Perhaps the way to judge historical figures is to ask: were they progressive for their own time? 

The discussion in the U.S. can shed light here. American historians have noted that founders like Washington and Jefferson deserve to be honoured today because they set up a country that could improve over time. Confederate generals do not deserve to be so honoured. Those generals were reactionaries who wanted to make a separate slave-owning society, which would have been worse than their whole country was at the time. 

Speaking of Confederate generals, do you know that one is honoured by a major street right here in Brandon? Gen. Thomas Lafayette Rosser served in the Confederate army before working for the CPR in Canada. In 1881, he chose the site for the future city of Brandon. Rosser later returned to the States; in 1910 he died in the city now in the news for racist incidents: Charlottesville, Virginia.

Of course, Brandon’s Rosser Avenue does not honour – specifically – the Confederacy or slavery. But the name of our central thoroughfare shows that history – and our commemoration of it – is messy.

And that brings us to the problem with erasing the name of Macdonald. Our first prime minister, like American founders, deserves credit for helping create a country that has improved over time.

And removing Macdonald’s name gives in to political correctness. So what? Well, political correctness is wrong in several ways. First, it simplifies issues. Second, it tries to stifle debate. Third, it is disrespectful. Political correctness treats people – in this case, indigenous kids – as being so fragile that they cannot handle contentious topics.

Here are my four recommendations for looking at the names of public streets and buildings.

Take an inventory of names, with their origins. Open up a citizens’ debate. While no name should be sacrosanct, allow at least one year of cooling off before changing anything.

Let’s open our imaginations to new possibilities for names. There are names that have been ignored or forgotten, such as marginalized historical figures and events, and words from indigenous and other languages.

But adding new names need not mean taking away old names. Sen. Murray Sinclair, former head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, recommends that we not remove Macdonald’s name from schools. This erasure, he notes, could produce anger, not harmony. Sinclair suggests instead that we look for indigenous heroes whose names could be added.

Students now attending a school named after a person should know who that individual was. Students should also explore that person’s role in history – the good and the bad. Here is an opportunity to delve into the past’s complexities and controversies. And there is a bonus. This could be a chance for inspiration: learning about someone thought worthy enough to have a school named after them.

Many communities, like Brandon, do not now have a school honouring our first prime minster. These communities might consider naming one of their buildings the Sir John A. Macdonald School.

* * * *
See also: 

Community Memorials a Link to the Great War

Dark Side of Brandon’s Past

Francis Marion Beynon: Compelling Story of a Manitoba Suffragist, Pacifist

What Should We Remember of Our History?

The Ongoing Task of Remembrance

Remembering F.A. Rosser, Wondering About Earl Oxford 



David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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