Challenging Canada’s Colonial History

From removing statues to revamping education, Canadians are coming to terms with their country’s colonial past

A photograph taken in 1908 at the Regina Indian Residential School. The school closed in 1910, and was demolished in 1948. (Wikimedia Commons)

On July 1, 1867, the British Colonies of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Canada were united, setting the foundation for the country as we know it today. This union of the colonies was orchestrated by the 36 “Fathers of Confederation,” including Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, and Quebec MP Hector Louis Langevin.

Macdonald’s presence on the $10.00 bill is a reminder of his persistent legacy. Schools, parks, streets, and bridges across the country bear his name. Numerous monuments and statues have been constructed in his honour. His contributions to Canadian Confederation in 1867 are undeniable, but the injustices he perpetrated, the irreversible suffering his actions and ambitions caused, and his reprehensible views on race concerning Indigenous and Chinese people are becoming more prominent in public discussion about his character.

Through the Ministry of Indian Affairs, the early Canadian government under John A. Macdonald supported the involvement of the Catholic Church in the residential school system, withheld land promised to the Red River Métis in the Manitoba Act of 1870, and orchestrated the starvation and deaths of thousands of Indigenous people across the prairies in order to force them onto reserves and facilitate the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

This statue of Edward Cornwallis was taken down in January 2018, after Halifax city council voted to remove it and put it in storage. (Deviantart/Tari-Stock)

Just last month, the City of Victoria decided to remove a statue of Macdonald from City Hall after consulting with the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations. In 2017, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation in Ontario voted to rename all of the schools in the province that were named after Macdonald.

He isn’t the only historical figure whose legacy is finally beginning to incorporate the travesties perpetrated in Canada’s colonial past. The Langevin Block on Parliament Hill was renamed due to Langevin’s involvement in implementing residential school programs—programs which many say led to some of the worst human rights abuses in the country’s history.

When advocating for the residential school system, Langevin was quoted as saying, “If you wish to educate the children you must separate them from their parents during the time they are being taught. If you leave them in the family they may know how to read and write, but they will remain savages, whereas by separating them in the way proposed, they acquire the habits and tastes of civilized people.”

Egerton Ryerson, who was one of the original architects behind creating a separate school system for Indigenous children, is also being questioned. Students at Ryerson University in Toronto are advocating for the school’s name to be changed and a statue depicting Ryerson to be removed. A statue of Edward Cornwallis, founder of Halifax, was taken down last year due to Cornwallis’s institution of a bounty reward for killing and scalping Mi’kmaq people in 1749. The statue had been the subject of public controversy since the 1980s.

The complicated legacies of these men include their contributions to building a nation, but also their sanctioning and active encouragement of terrible violence toward Indigenous people, humanitarian transgressions, and unapologetic genocide.

“History is not monolithic,” says Seema Ahluwalia, a KPU sociology instructor whose work focuses on racialization, First Peoples studies, and decolonization of educational curricula.

“History is viewed from many different perspectives, and when I think about Canadians tearing down statues as a gesture of reconciliation, I’m worried that the gesture is a very tokenistic one.”

The discourse surrounding these issues is largely split between those who advocate for challenging the rosy legacies of colonial figures and those who worry that in doing so, we may end up covering up elements of this country’s past that should never be forgotten.

“I don’t think we can hide history. I think we have to confront the ghosts,” says Dr. Tom Thorner, Chair of the Department of History at KPU. “You can’t deny history. You can try to explain it better to people so that they have a better understanding of what culture was like in the past.”

KSA Indigenous Students Representative Sarah Strachan works in the Aboriginal Gathering Place on Surrey campus. (Braden Klassen)

Sarah Strachan, the Kwantlen Student Association’s Indigenous Students Representative, says that she had never heard of the residential school programs until three years ago.

“Education is key. People need to understand what happened and what is still going on,” she says.

Canadian schools are integrating Indigenous studies into their curriculum in response to calls to action published by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Strachan says that her younger family members are receiving a more complete education about Canada’s colonial history than she did when she was their age.

“I’m excited for them to learn because I didn’t get that opportunity and I’m kind of doing it by myself right now,” she says.

Strachan, whose mother was adopted by a white family when she was an infant, says that her upbringing in a white family environment prevented her from learning about Indigenous peoples’ history.

“I think it was a good move to take [the Macdonald statue] down,” she says. “A majority of the people looking at these statues aren’t thinking, ‘Oh, he did all this bad stuff.’ He was just the first Prime Minister of Canada.”

“We don’t want to erase him from history,” she continues. “It’s important to know what he did.”

“In ripping down John A. Macdonald’s statue, I just hope we don’t miss that teachable moment to remind people who John A. Macdonald is,” says Ahluwalia. “And this time the reminders need to come from the people who experienced John A. Macdonald not as this glorious nation-founder, but as one of the architects of the destruction of so many peace and friendship agreements.”

Thorner says that many Canadians are ignorant of just how widespread and long-lasting the effects of colonialism really were. The last residential school to close was the Gordon Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, which operated until 1996.

“Most Canadians have been happy not to know much about their history, and then all of a sudden they’re surprised that these people reflected the context of their times,” says Thorner. “It’s so profound; it’s everywhere. There are so many other things named after people that we are going to be suspicious of.”

jaye simpson, an Oji-Cree Anishinaabe Indigenous activist, agrees with the removal of the statues, but argues that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission still has ground to cover when it comes to the rights of sex workers and acknowledging the intersectionality of these issues.

“I think [the statues] all need to go. [They’re] portraying a certain history that isn’t truthful,” simpson says. “Statues are coming down but folks aren’t getting a proper education as to why they’re coming down.”

“[They believe] they’re coming down because they’re offensive, but why is it offensive? Are we changing the school curriculum to acknowledge the fact that John A. Macdonald, Ryerson, Cornwallis were all abusers and colonizers, and should be charged for humanitarian crimes?” they ask. “No, we’re not talking about that.”

Ahluwalia feels that removing statues of these figures “speaks more to an aspect of Canadian culture, [which is] conflict aversion.

“I think that the quick knee-jerk reaction of tearing down statues will not tear down our history, will not erase the importance of understanding what is really going on here,” she says.

A photograph taken in 1945 at St. Anne’s Indian Residential School in Ontario. In 2009, the Vatican released an “expression of sorrow” of the treatment of Indigenous children in lieu of an official apology. (Wikimedia Commons)

The abuse perpetrated against children in residential schools resulted in widespread psychological trauma, the aftermath of which is still being felt by Indigenous people today. An academic study published in 2014 by professors at Carleton and The University of Ottawa examines how research “has provided consistent evidence of the enduring links between familial IRS [Indian Residential School] attendance and a range of health and social outcomes among the descendants of those who attended.”

There is a growing academic interest in the lasting social impacts of the residential school system and the “Sixties Scoop”, when Indigenous children were taken from their communities by the Canadian government and put up for adoption by mostly white families. Scholars are increasingly acknowledging the importance of decolonizing both current and historical discourse around these issues.

University of Regina Associate Professor James Daschuk’s book, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life has become one of the most cited works of literature that deconstructs Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people.

In 2014, Daschuk won the Governor General’s History Award for Scholarly Research. The award is also known as the Sir John A. Macdonald Prize.

“As a white scholar, I was able to take winning the prize in stride and just think of it as an ironic thing that my work, which exposed Macdonald’s inhumanity, won the Macdonald prize,” said Daschuk in an interview with the National Post in 2017. “I can imagine a time when an Indigenous scholar wins the prize, and it’s going to be a slap in the face.”

Canadian historians are advocating that the name of the prestigious award be changed.

“We need to begin to have symposiums of acknowledging the violence if you want to keep the history,” says simpson. “You need to acknowledge that what is being taught is the colonial version, and that there’s always more than one version.”

“We’re trying to be just in our time, but I don’t think we can change history,” says Thorner.

“Every prime minister that came after Macdonald kept residential schools going, kept funding residential schools,” he adds. “So is everybody to blame for the problem?”

For their part, provincial governments are amending curricula to fall in line with recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—except for the Ontario government under Doug Ford, which, despite public assurances that the province is progressing with updating its curricula, actually cancelled a July project to update social studies and history lessons at the last minute. This angered Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars who had already travelled to Toronto to contribute to the rewrite.

Many Canadians find it difficult to agree on how the country should atone for the cruelties of its colonial history, or if complete reconciliation is even possible at this point. People can agree, however, that if any progress is to be made, acknowledging the past and responsibly educating the generations of the future is likely the best place to start.