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The statue of John A. MacDonald has been removed from in front of Victoria City Hall. Unsurprisingly for the head of an organisation called the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, I believe the current campaign of vilification and erasure being carried out against Sir John A. Macdonald, architect of Confederation and our first prime minister, is both wrong and unjustified. On the other hand, I warmly welcome the desire for reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous peoples that justifies this campaign in the minds of many people of good will.

Can the desire to celebrate the history of perhaps the finest country in the world, and that of seeking reconciliation with Indigenous people who feel wronged by that history, be made to co-exist? I believe they can and that we should try.

Remembering that the most recent attack on Sir John’s reputation was the removal of his statue from the city hall in Victoria B.C. in the name of reconciliation, the meaning of that word is worth reflecting on. Perhaps the most famous truth and reconciliation (T&R) effort in the world was South Africa’s following the end of the odious apartheid regime.

The values behind that country’s T&R commission were movingly expressed as “a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu (kindness) but not for victimization.”

As one acute observer explained, “(t)hus, what (T&R) commissions seek to undo is the deep-rooted human need for vengeance as a means to address past wrongs.”

Reconciliation requires all the parties to focus on the future, which is in our power to shape, not the past, which cannot be changed. It requires them to bring great generosity of spirit to the endeavour, to forswear revenge and retaliation because they only sow the seeds of future conflict. Instead, we must look for ways to accept responsibility for past wrongs, to accept genuinely offered gestures of restitution and healing, and to show each other kindness and compassion. That sows the seeds of future comity.

The decision to remove Sir John’s statue and the larger effort to shame him and his contribution fails these tests of genuine reconciliation. And I cite no less an authority than Senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired Canada’s own T&R commission. In 2017, he said: “The problem I have with the overall approach to tearing down statues and buildings is that it is counterproductive to … reconciliation because it almost smacks of revenge or smacks of acts of anger, but in reality, what we are trying to do is … to create more balance in the relationship.”

The revulsion with which the vast majority of Canadians have greeted the decision to remove Sir John’s statue shows that that gesture fails the tests of reconciliation because non-Indigenous Canadians do not accept the reducing of their illustrious founder to a one-dimensional caricature based on a policy that was widely accepted and supported at the time. Far from promoting reconciliation, this will only create resentment and resistance to real efforts at reconciliation that address the future, not the past.

Nothing will dispel the appetite for reconciliation faster than the belief that Canadians who are justly proud of their country must hide these sentiments and look on silently while our founders are treated as criminals whose names must never be mentioned in polite company.

Does that mean that nothing could have been done to recognise Indigenous feelings about the historical facts of traditional Canadian “Indian policy”? Of course not. New interpretive material could have accompanied Macdonald’s statue, fully recognising his role in helping to create Canada’s early Aboriginal policy, along with his many more positive accomplishments, which include, […]

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