Liberty Lecture praises John A. Macdonald, divides Law Faculty

Conrad Black, Joe Martin speak in support of founding father in Monday lecture

Conrad Black stands at a podium in Macdonald Hall Monday.

On Monday, a group of law students attended the next installment of the controversial Liberty Lecture series, amid protests from students and faculty.

The lecture, titled “In Praise of Sir John A. Macdonald: Historical Icon meets the PC Brigade,” featured National Post columnist Conrad Black and Professor of Business History, Joe Martin.

The lecture faced criticism from several faculty members. In emails obtained by The Journal, law professors discussed organizing a “counter event” during the lecture.

Professor Bruce Pardy told faculty and students in an email the reason for the lecture was the recent removal of references to Macdonald.

Pardy referenced a bench located near the front doors of the building, which had “Macdonald Hall” carved in stone, but was removed in July. In September,

Macdonald’s portrait, which hung on the fifth floor of the building, was also taken down.

In response, faculty raised objections based on the lecture’s timing. In mass emails, several professors called out the lecture for coming on the heels of last Friday’s official unveiling of words that are lasting—a new Indigenous art installation by Montreal artist Hannah Claus in the lobby of Macdonald Hall.

Additionally, Monday was Orange Shirt Day, which honours survivors and victims of residential schools. In protest of the event, faculty and students wore orange and distributed pamphlets titled, “Historical Icon, or Genocidal Leader?”

In their introductory remarks, both Black and Martin pushed back on the recent removal of a statue of Macdonald in Victoria, B.C. 

“I’m asking you to recall how much Macdonald achieved. I’m not saying he was a man without faults, but his faults weren’t terribly serious. He drank, but what’s wrong with that?” Black said.

Black described Macdonald’s career as “astonishing.” He also said Macdonald was “a great statesman” and a “highly esteemed person.” 

In his opening remarks, Martin said he was “mad as hell” he had to defend Macdonald’s record. “The last 11 months have been very sad because I’ve seen many attacks on Sir John A. Macdonald.”

Martin said Macdonald “deserves to be honoured” and that people shouldn’t “take a tiny part of his life and besmirch the whole canvas.” 

During the lecture, students protested outside of Macdonald Hall, boasting large signs condemning white supremacy. 

“As white settlers, it’s important to think about how we engage in these issues,” protestor Sophie Vlaad The Journal about her opposition to the talk.

At the same time, the Indigenous Law Student Alliance (ILSA) and members of the faculty organized a vigil for Orange Shirt day. 

The vigil—which took place in the courtyard behind Macdonald Hall—had roughly a hundred attendees. 

“It was really difficult to hear that Conrad Black was coming. The whole praise of John A. Macdonald was very hurtful as an Indigenous student,” said Lauren Winkler, Law ’20 and a member of ILSA.

Protesters boast orange shirts to honour victims of residential schools during Black, Martin lecture. Credit: Chris Yao

“We wanted to make today about honouring survivors and not celebrating the man who was instrumental in the creation of residential schools. I think it’s powerful that we’re not engaging in that conversation around John A. Macdonald—it’s more about the children who were taken,” Winkler said.

Dean of Law, Bill Flanagan, attended the vigil wearing an orange shirt. Winkler said it was meaningful that Flanagan participated.

In a mass email last week, Flanagan steered faculty away from using mass emails to debate the lecture. Instead, he’s set up an online OnQ discussion forum for students, faculty and staff to exchange ideas. 

In an interview, Flanagan told The Journal he hopes the forum will see “thoughtful and respectful discussion, even about matters that people may feel very passionate on either side of the debate.”

“Our role as a law school, as a university, is to ensure there is ample space for those conversations,” he said. Flanagan added he started the first thread of the online forum by discussing his remarks at the unveiling of words that are lasting. 

Flanagan said his role puts him in a difficult situation when issues like Macdonald’s legacy flare up. 

“We’re in an institution that is committed to academic freedom and respectful dialogue, and that’s my role. I don’t have great powers as a dean to command people to do things,” he said.

“The power of persuasion—that’s the only power that’s truly meaningful in a university setting.”

 

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