Sir John A. a divisive figure

Kingstonians debate Prime Minister’s legacy in lead-up to bicentennial

A puppet of Sir John A. Macdonald at City Hall on Canada Day.
A puppet of Sir John A. Macdonald at City Hall on Canada Day.
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A Sir John A. Macdonald impersonator at City Hall on Canada Day.
A Sir John A. Macdonald impersonator at City Hall on Canada Day.
Photo: 

The legacy of Canada’s first Prime Minister is being debated in the lead-up to Sir John A. Macdonald’s bicentennial.

The 16th annual symposium on Indigenous research, organized by the Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre (FDASC), will take place Friday and Saturday at Sutherland Hall and will discuss “the violent exclusions, repressions and impositions of the Canadian nation building project” during Macdonald’s time as Prime Minister.

“Critical Indigenous reflections on Sir John A. Macdonald” comes less than two months before the bicentennial of Macdonald’s birth, with other bicentennial-related events set to occur in Kingston in January.

Themes at the symposium include “‘Indian’ policies and treaty making”, Louis Riel, the making of a racial settler state and “state repression and the working class, relative to Indigenous populations”.

Erin Sutherland, a co-organizer of the symposium, said Macdonald’s influence can still be seen in politics today.

“Especially through the way that Prime Minister Harper talks about celebrating John A. Macdonald and celebrating the War of 1812 … he’s really connecting today’s Conservative Party and the government today to kind of Canada in the 1800s,” said Sutherland, a PhD candidate in the department of Cultural Studies.

Arthur Milnes, the Sir John A. Macdonald Bicentennial Ambassador for the City of Kingston, said he’s “thrilled” that the symposium’s taking place, adding that Macdonald would have supported these discussions.

“What a great chance in this case for the Aboriginal community to shed light and study some of Canada’s earliest actions as a nation that have impacted Aboriginal peoples,” Milnes said.

He added that Macdonald, like other leaders, are “products of their times”, so discussions must be contextualized.

“Show me a Prime Minister that’s perfect or an Aboriginal Chief that’s perfect, and I’ll show you someone who hasn’t been a Chief or Prime Minister,” he said.

In January, former Premier of Ontario Bob Rae and Canada’s Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Christopher Alexander will debate ‘Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s greatest Prime Minister?’ as part of the City’s bicentennial programming.

“This is a commemoration and celebration that we all can be proud of,” Milnes said.

“In our own small way, I think Kingstonians, by being so inclusive, are showing other communities how to cooperatively discuss Canadian history and how to learn from it and how to move forward.”

Paul Dyck, artistic associate at SALON Theatre Productions — which will run Macdonald Week from Jan. 6-11 in Kingston — said that while the City refers to bicentennial events as a “celebration”, SALON Theatre prefers to “mark” the events.

“We’re choosing not to use a word like that because that implies that people want to celebrate, and not everybody wants to celebrate Sir John A. Macdonald,” he said.

SALON Theatre aims to remain neutral and create a “bicentennial conversation”, Dyck said, adding that the organization supports the symposium because it brings a critical perspective to the discussion.

“[Macdonald] is one of the most complex individuals of our past and influential, for better or for worse,” Dyck said.

“To understand him fully and appreciate him fully, I think you have to look at all sides of him.”

Laura Murray, a professor in the department of cultural studies, will present at the symposium alongside fellow City of Kingston Municipal Heritage Committee member Paul Carl.

“[A] huge amount of attention” is paid to Macdonald in Kingston, according to Murray.

“In a way, by just looking at Sir John A. Macdonald, we forget other aspects of the City’s history,” she said.

Murray and Carl are interested in underexplored and underrepresented areas of Kingston’s history, with a focus on Indigenous history.

She said “mock plaques” will be presented at the symposium “of the kinds of things that we would like to see marked in Kingston streets.”

She added that this is the beginning of a project that could potentially lead to collaboration with artists or community members, or simply using the plaques as “a way of thinking”.

“We’ve tried to imagine how Kingston could do a better job thinking about its Indigenous history,” Murray said.

Greg Tilson, a member of Kingston music collective The Gertrudes, said the group will create a song that will bring “critical perspective” to the symposium and the bicentennial events in January.

The project will be undertaken alongside Indigenous filmmaker Amanda Strong and Kingston writer Sadiqa Khan.

The primary goal of the song, he said, is to widen the conversation, although he added that he doesn’t want this to be a divisive topic.

“It has the potential to be divisive in Kingston just because we, for better or for worse, we associate so much of the city’s identity with the home of the first prime minister,” Tilson said.

However, Tilson said he has noticed movement toward a “more inclusive conversation”.

“I think it’s important to note that there are many Kingstonians and many Canadians, such as the Aboriginal community, that, you know, don’t really have a reason to celebrate or glorify this particular person and this part of our history,” he said.

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