Renaming Sir John A. Macdonald Hall won’t erase history, but acknowledge it

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Last week, the Faculty of Law launched consultations on the naming of the Sir John A. Macdonald Hall building. The Journal Editorial Board feels this is a step in the right direction, but that the University should ultimately change the building’s name.

Macdonald still plays an essential role in Canadian textbooks; removing his name from a building won’t change that or make us forget him. What it will do, however, is acknowledge the violence against Indigenous peoples he is responsible for.

If the University decides to keep the former prime minister’s name—in spite of the petition urging it to do otherwise—Queen’s will show that it prioritizes a history fueled by residential schools over the Indigenous peoples who suffered because of them.

There’s no reason not to remove Macdonald’s name. Besides living in Kingston, he has no ties to the law school or even the university. While some have suggested representing his “complicated legacy” instead—both the good and bad—this idea is subjective. For Indigenous peoples, his legacy isn’t complicated at all—it’s a legacy of genocide and abuse.

The Faculty of Law was quick to launch consultations following the petition’s circulation, and this is a positive thing. But Sir John A. Macdonald Hall is not the only on-campus building named after a controversial figure. If the University truly wants to make a difference, it should proactively evaluate other halls as well, instead of waiting for the next petition to surface. Doing so would be a step in the right direction and might even prompt the City of Kingston to look introspectively at its own plaques and statues. 

In terms of the consultation process, the University should ensure it is prioritizing feedback from Indigenous students and Four Directions—the communities this issue affects. Even further, it should hold open consultations so more than just a select few can voice their opinions. 

Holding these consultations shows the University is willing to listen, but listening is one thing; acting on student feedback is another, and the Editorial Board hopes Queen’s decision will genuinely reflect the concerns raised by its students. 

At the end of the day, names can be changed; history cannot. Removing Macdonald’s name won’t make us forget him or reconcile the pain he caused Indigenous peoples. It will, however, stop memorializing him as a figure to be celebrated. Canada has enough plaques dedicated to Sir John A. Macdonald—it can live with one less.

—Journal Editorial Board

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