Recently there have been harsh criticisms levied against past–and often celebrated–figures in Canadian history, particularly Prime Ministers like John A. Macdonald and Wilfrid Laurier. Critics have pointed out the way past historians often ignored or downplayed the negative aspects of their legacies, such as the “head tax” on Chinese immigrants, the discrimination against Indigenous peoples, or the racist immigration hierarchy that favoured people from Western and Northern Europe over people from other parts of Europe or the world.
These critics have a point–men like Macdonald and Laurier, and the populations they governed, shared much of the same racism as other people in the 19th century. However, some critics take things further than that, as noted by the backlash against the attempt to erect statues of all the Prime Ministers at Wilfrid Laurier University earlier this year. The implication to take away from this is that apparently we shouldn’t be–or perhaps we’re not allowed to–take pride in anything they accomplished, even if it was otherwise positive.
The view of Canadian history becomes just as one-dimensional as before, except in the opposite direction.
In the case of Macdonald, he promoted the regrettable view that Indigenous people should be assimilated. However, he also actively strove to build positive relations between Anglophone and Francophone Canadians, while protesting the way that Francophone rights were being suppressed outside of Quebec. He also proposed extending the vote to women–although Parliament voted against it–and he legalized trade unions.
For his part, Laurier formally established a hierarchical immigration system. However, he continued Macdonald’s efforts of building positive relationships between Anglophones and Francophones, and in supporting Francophone rights while also respecting the autonomy of the provinces. The immigration boom that occurred on his watch contributed immeasurably to the cultural diversity of Canada. Notably, he also subtly distanced Canada more and more from the British Empire, continuing Canada’s growth as an independent country.
There is much more to Canada and its history than just these two leaders, of course. But Macdonald and Laurier illustrate how complex our history and character actually are. That’s one of the advantages of knowing our history, too–seeing where our ancestors made mistakes, so we can build on their successes while learning from their mistakes.
Whitewashing the ugly parts of Canada’s past won’t solve anything. However, neither will only focusing on those ugly parts by themselves, without also recognizing real progresses that were made at the same time. The best way forward is to take a nuanced look at our history, and realize that many figures in Canadian history had both virtues and flaws. A more in-depth understanding of our history can lead to a more in-depth understanding of Canada itself.
We have a lot to criticize and regret in our history, but we also have a lot to celebrate and take pride in.
An earlier version of this article was published in the St. Albert Gazette on July 2, 2016.