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Don’t hold Sir John A. Macdonald to 2017’s values

J.D.M. Stewart is a high-school teacher in Toronto and author of Being Prime Minister, to be published by Dundurn in 2018.

The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario has brought the commemoration debate from the United States into the public consciousness here. The ETFO recently passed a resolution asking boards in Ontario to consider removing from schools the name of Sir John A. Macdonald, the country's first prime minister and founding father.

Teachers, who we have to assume mean well, have missed the mark.

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Certainly, there is a debate to be had about how we recognize Canada's historical figures. But attempts to erase Sir John A. Macdonald from public history do not make sense. In fact, they reveal a narrow understanding of history and its people.

Does John A. Macdonald have warts in terms of his historical record and beliefs? Of course. He was no fan of Chinese immigration. "It is not considered advantageous to the country that the Chinese should come and settle," he said in 1883. "It may be right or wrong, but the prejudice is universal." Two years later, his government implemented the Chinese head tax, which reduced the flow of Chinese immigrants from 4,000 to 214 in just one year.

Interestingly, the subsequent government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier raised the tax to $500 from $50. No one has called for renaming Wilfrid Laurier schools. Yet.

Macdonald's approach toward Canada's Indigenous population earns him few plaudits, either, although there is room for debate on his attitude. But these aspects can be taught in classrooms (that is, when history is a subject actually being taught properly in Ontario's elementary schools – an issue that merits more scrutiny) along with his achievement of bringing the Dominion of Canada into being in the first place. Macdonald's legacy is large and diverse.

The issue raised by the ETFO is about far more than Macdonald, though. The problem with this resolution – and in much of the current debate about names on buildings and taking down statues – is the lack of understanding about history that it reveals.

Too many people launch into debates about the past assuming it is black and white, filled with winners and losers, heroes and villains. The reality is much different. History is painted with grey; it is filled with ambiguity, conundrums and perplexing evidence to reconcile. And it takes time, knowledge and consideration to figure it out.

History is even more challenging when dealing with its characters, real people with human foibles and strengths. Take a peek into your own family to see some of the complexity.

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A further concern is that there seems to be a race right now to see how many historical figures can be knocked down by applying our own standards of justice and morality to the past.

In history circles, this is called "presentism," and those thinking about the past – whether it is students first learning about people such as John A. and Nellie McClung, or the public – are encouraged to be cautious about using contemporary values to judge the actions of historical figures. This is not intended to make excuses for crimes and misdemeanours of long ago, but it is a huge yellow light for all of us trying to draw conclusions about historical actors.

"The past can be used for almost anything you want to do in the present," wrote Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan, one of our country's great voices of reason.

"We abuse it when we create lies about the past or write histories that show only one perspective. We can draw our lessons carefully or badly. That does not mean we should not look to history for understanding, support, and help; it does mean that we should do so with care."

Whether in classrooms or in public debate, good advice for all.

Video: Robert E. Lee statue covered in Charlottesville (The Associated Press)
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