'Everyone has warts': Indigenous MP supports John A. Macdonald's name on schools

An Indigenous MP, who called for the renaming of Ottawa’s Langevin Block because of its namesake’s role in the creation of the residential school system, said he does not feel the same way about stripping the name of Canada’s first prime minister from public schools.

This week the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario kicked off a national debate when delegates revealed they passed a motion that called on school districts to “examine and rename schools and buildings named after Sir John A. Macdonald.”

This would be done, the motion said, “in recognition of his central role as the architect of genocide against Indigenous peoples.”

“When we start effacing completely that history, and not recognizing it, then people can forget very readily what occurred. And so for me it’s always important to have that anchor,” Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette told Chris Hall, host of CBC’s The House.

“Everyone has warts. That’s what makes us human beings” 

Macdonald is praised for rousing the support needed for Confederation, making it happen and then keeping the country together, but his legacy is also blemished by his support for residential schools, the Indian Act, and the hanging of Louis Riel.

Ouellette, originally from the Red Pheasant First Nation in Saskatchewan, said keeping Macdonald’s names on schools allows teachers to reflect on the complexity of his character in Canadian history.

Langevin ‘one of the smaller minions’

The Winnipeg MP was one of a group of federal Indigenous politicians, including fellow Liberal Don Rusnak, Independent Hunter Tootoo and New Democrat Roméo Saganash, who called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to rename the building housing the Prime Minister’s Office so that survivors of residential schools would not be perpetually reminded of a man who “devastated their lives.”

Robert-Falcon Ouellette

Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette was one of a group of federal Indigenous politicians who called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to rename the building housing the Prime Minister’s Office. (robertfalconouellette.liberal.ca)

The building was named after Hector-Louis Langevin, a Father of Confederation and a prominent member of Macdonald’s cabinet, who was also a proponent of the creation of the schools to assimilate First Nations children, although his role has since been questioned.

“Langevin, when we think about his role, he was more one of the smaller minions,” Ouellette said. “Sir John A. Macdonald was actually very important to the founding of Canada and the Canada we know today.”

Ouellette said he also pushed for the government to rename the Langevin Block after one of Macdonald’s contemporaries, Métis politician Louis Riel, instead of simply renaming it the Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council.

“I think a lot of Indigenous peoples need to have heroes that we can recognize and see in the most important and symbolic of places,” he said.

‘How would you feel?’

Perry Bellegarde, the national chief for the Assembly of First Nations, said he supports the teachers’ motion.

“How would you feel if you were a young First Nations person going to that school, knowing full well that Sir John A. Macdonald was one of the architects behind the residential school system?” Bellegarde asked in an interview with CBC.

“You wouldn’t want to feel good about attending that school, would you? Because I wouldn’t.”

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer called the motion “a ridiculous suggestion.”

“I reject the thought process behind it,” he told The House. “Instead of trying to erase their names or try to forget their contribution to Canadian society we should use that aspect as teaching moments to say, ‘this is how far society has come.'”

Former foreign affairs minister John Baird, who supported renaming the Ottawa River Parkway the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway, called it “political correctness on steroids.”

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