Canada’s founding father divides Kingston

John A. Macdonald’s presence at Queen’s and in the city comes under scrutiny

John A. Macdonald’s legacy is coming into question.
Credit: 
Chris Yao

Anywhere you turn in Kingston, there are ghosts of John A. Macdonald.

His name and face are plastered on ten statues and 13 public schools across the country, as well as on the ten-dollar bill. In Kingston, historical plaques and dedications cover the city and its landmarks, including Queen’s law building.

Despite his omnipresence, the Father of Confederation helped administer the Indian Act and residential schools, which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada called cultural genocide in their Final Report of 2015

The schools were established to force Indigenous children’s assimilation into Euro-Canadian culture, becoming notorious for rampant physical and sexual abuse. 

This history is coming home. 

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When Queen’s was founded in 1841, Macdonald was a young man kicking off a law career in Kingston. 

He played a role in the establishment of the University, and was an active member in St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church—participating in meetings that eventually resulted in the creation of Queen’s.  

Macdonald seconded the motion to establish what was then called Queen’s College, and supported the university throughout its creation process during the early 1840s. 

In 1853, a meeting about creating a medical school at Queen’s took place at Macdonald’s Kingston home.

He was later considered for the position of the First Chancellor of Queen’s. Reverend John Cook, however, was chosen instead.

In 1863, Macdonald was awarded an Honourary Doctorate of Law—an award that recognized his law career in Kingston and his supporting role in the founding of Queen’s. 

In 1960, Queen’s would name their law building after him, even though he never actually studied there.

After all this history, Macdonald’s legacy is being challenged. 

John A. Today

For the average Queen’s law student, Macdonald’s name may mean nothing more than a building.

For Lauren Winkler and Sophia Gabbani, Law ‘20, it comes with a painful history.

Before Winkler came to Queen’s law school, she spoke to a fellow Indigenous friend about the meaning behind the building she’d soon study in daily.

“He said, ‘Every time I walk into that building, I think about my family members who were in residential schools and taken away as children,’” Winkler said. 

“Ever since that day that [he] told me that, I [thought], ‘I don’t want any other Indigenous student to ever feel like that.’”

It’s for this reason that Winkler and Gabbani are members of the Indigenous Law Students’ Alliance (ILSA). At the end of the current academic year, they plan on appealing to the Board of Trustees to get the name of the building changed.

“It’s not just this symbol of the past,” Gabbani said. “It’s a painful reminder of colonial violence every time you walk by it, every time you walk into the law school or see the statue.”

“You carry that with you for the rest of the day and bring that with you into classes.”

And it’s not limited to campus. 

Last January, a popular pub on King Street, formerly known as Sir John’s Public House, changed its name to The Public House.

Paul Fortier, owner of The Public House, said the decision to change the name of the pub was diplomatic.

The purpose was “not to reject John A. Macdonald—just to be more inclusive.”

Located in Macdonald’s old law office, Fortier opened the bar in 2011. While a bust of Macdonald is still on the wall, the decision to remove his name had a big impact on his business.

“[The] military don’t like us anymore because we’re showing disrespect to Canada’s past, which is really not what we’re doing,” Fortier said. 

After changing its name, Fortier received four death threats in two weeks.

“What we did very successfully was we pissed everybody off,” Fortier said.

For Warren Everett, President of the Kingston Historical Society (KHS), removing these references to Macdonald “merely polarizes the argument.”

It would be beneficial, in his view, to surround the monument with information to situate it in the context of its time—storyboards or pieces of information that acknowledge Macdonald’s successes and failures.

Everett feels that Macdonald’s founding of our nation is too often forgotten in the discussion of his legacy.

“We need to ask ourselves: if we hadn’t had Sir John, where would Canada be? Would there be a Canada?”

Where it leaves Queen’s

Natasha Stirrett, an Indigenous student at Queen’s and a Cultural Studies PhD candidate, has been an active part of protests against Macdonald in the past. 

Although she isn’t a law student, she finds the law building a troubling tribute to a villain in her history.

“What kind of message does it send to students and the community to commemorate a historical figure on campus who was instrumental in orchestrating residential schools and mass genocide and murder against a marginalized group?” Stirrett said. 

“What are we teaching students?”

The law building can be a contradiction. Classroom discussions surrounding Indigenous history can often be positive, and there’s  even an Indigenous art exhibition inside.

However, none of this erases the painful history that Macdonald’s name on the building represents. 

“Of all places, I find it odd that [the law] building would be named after John A. Macdonald given the established evidence of his crimes against humanity,” Stirrett said.

In a statement to The Journal, Dean of the Faculty of Law at Queen’s, Bill Flanagan, said, “Queen’s Law has taken the 2015 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to heart.”

“We remain committed to reconciliation, and also to respectful conversations about Sir John A. Macdonald and his legacy that accommodate different views and welcome the input of all interested parties.”

In regards to the name of the faculty’s building, Flanagan said a discussion with “the entire university community” would need to take place.

However, for the students of ILSA, the efforts the law school have made haven’t been enough.

“We will never reach true reconciliation while the name of our building is John. A. Macdonald Hall,” Gabbani said.

Michael Doxtater, an Assistant Professor in the Languages, Literatures and Cultures department at Queen’s, looks at the issue differently.

“On my reserve, there is no John A. Macdonald anything,” Doxtater said. “It’s not our problem. It’s your problem. You have to come to grips with the truth of your history, not us. We already know the truth about your history.”

In his opinion, the removal of Macdonald’s reference simply isn’t practical.

“Take all that money you’d use to change names and give it back to my people,” Doxtater said. “We have bigger fish to fry.”

As Director of Indigenous Initiatives at Queen’s, Janice Hill finds herself somewhat caught in the middle. 

Being an Indigenous member of the administration, she has the unique ability to understand Indigenous law students’ struggle and discomfort of carrying Macdonald’s name thoughout their school day.

When the time comes to discuss a name change, her Indigenous heritage and place in the school administration may come into conflict.

“I carry memory of that situation in my DNA because I come from those ancestors. There’s power in that,” Hill explained. “[A]t some point, I have to reclaim my own power and acknowledge that that happened, but not allow it to steal my personal power.”

According to students at ILSA, the law school could be more appropriately named after Robert Sutherland. As the first Canadian university graduate of colour—as well as an actual graduate of Queen’s law school—his legacy could be more fitting. 

He also helped bail Queen’s out of bankruptcy in 1878.

Meanwhile, for Darian Doblej, an Indigenous law student and a new member of ILSA, the name of his faculty’s building is ironic.

“It was Sir John A. who said that an Indian who grew up educated in his culture is just an educated savage. And yet here I am, growing up in my culture, learning law in his hall.”

“Am I still that educated savage?”

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