How a new history group aims to defend Canadians like John A Macdonald

‘A number of us were concerned about what we saw happening to history being perverted or new words coming in; different facts, alternative facts, false information’

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In the reckoning over Canada’s history, those who would see the preservation of statues and place names have frequently been on the losing side of the debate. Now, they’re organizing, with a new not-for-profit dedicated to promoting Canadian history, wars and all.

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The Canadian Institute for Historical Education has been incorporated with the mission of promoting academic research into “all aspects of contributions, good and bad, made by significant historical figures,” and to “facilitate educational analytic discussion regarding measures aimed at removing or changing existing historical commemoratives.”

Gordon Walker, a Conservative Ontario politician in the 1970s and ’80s, was one of the founding members of the group. Its mission, he said, is to try and correct the record on historical interpretation, which in come cases is “clearly wrong.”

“A number of us were concerned about what we saw happening to history being perverted or new words coming in; different facts, alternative facts, false information. And we’re getting very concerned about that kind of thing,” Walker told the National Post.

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Last weekend, the group held a seminar, discussing the legacy of Henry Dundas, a Scottish politician after whom a number of Ontario streets have been named. Most prominently, though, is the artery running through Toronto — which faces renaming because of Dundas’ role in the debates over slavery in the British Empire. The seminar, held at Massey College, had more than 35 people in the room, said Walker, and heard from historians Christopher Dummit and Patrice Dutil, sociologist Lynn McDonald, and Jennifer Dundas, a distant relative of Henry Dundas.

Those seeking to update Canada’s historical understanding and place names have seen remarkable successes so far, besides the vandalism and graffiti that have marred statues in recent years. Toronto’s Ryerson University has been renamed Toronto Metropolitan University.

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In Edmonton, the city renamed the Grandin LRT station to Government Centre, as Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin was a key figure in the residential school system. In Calgary, Langevin School — named after Hector-Louis Langevin, one of the Fathers of the Confederation who is also considered an architect of residential schools — was renamed to Riverside School.

The argument is quite straightforward: the march of history stops for nobody, and as our understanding of the past evolves, so too should the way society honor figures from the past, who, by contemporary standards, may have been racists, bigots or misogynists, or complicated in all manner of horrors.

Whether Henry Dundas played a key role in the preservation of slavery within the British Empire, or that he was actually instrumental in ensuring the abolition of slavery has been a matter for debate.
Whether Henry Dundas played a key role in the preservation of slavery within the British Empire, or that he was actually instrumental in ensuring the abolition of slavery has been a matter for debate. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

In Kingston, Ont., the statue of John A. Macdonald has been defaced repeatedly, before being moved entirely. In Montreal, activists tipped Macdonald over and decapitated the remains. Queen Victoria’s effigy in Winnipeg was also headed. A statue of Egerton Ryerson on the then-Ryerson University grounds was torn down.

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Yet, as these debates have raged, often in the pages of newspapers and historical journals, a number of people — both academics and lay people — have urged people to think again. Their argument, too, is straightforward: it’s shoddy history that’s led to the renaming of schools and the tearing down of statutes, and even if it were not, history is complex and cannot simply be erased or rewritten or renamed.

“The reason why all this can happen, and that’s the point of this organization, is because Canadians have no idea what to think,” said Dutil.

Dutil, who spoke at Saturday’s seminar, said Canada has become a society of “historically illiterate.” There are few books published on Canadian history; only one history magazine remains; and public television rarely tackles topics of historical importance.

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“This is becoming very dangerous grounds for all sorts of demagogues,” said Dutil. “We know where we’ve been. We know where we’re going. And we have a lot of people now, politicians, who are trying to erase the past — they’re not trying, they’re doing it — and who are doing it for reasons that are at least very suspect if not plain wrong. ”

Those who oppose Dundas’ legacy argue that he played an essential role in the preservation of slavery within the British Empire. On the other side of the debate, supporters argue that Dundas was in fact instrumental in ensuring the abolition of slavery. It boils down, basically, to Dundas’s recommendation in a parliamentary resolution that William Wilberforce, a staunch abolitionist, aim to implement the abolition of slavery gradually. (Wilberforce had previously lost two votes in attempting to abolish slavery).

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The adoption of that wording indeed extended the slave trade by 15 years, but Dundas, his supporters argued, displayed some sophistication in ensuring that the abolition of slavery came to be accepted, rather than setting Wilberforce up for another lost vote.

The group plans similar seminars this year on Ryerson, who’s been linked to the creation of the residential school system, and Macdonald, who worked to keep Chinese immigrants from Canada and helped set up the reserve system for Indigenous people in Canada, in addition to being the first prime minister.

Walker said many Canadians have a strong link to historical figures. He points to himself: Ryerson was instrumental in establishing public education and public libraries in Ontario. “They were meaningful in my life,” said Walker.

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The debate over names and statues is a very public version of what happened with all historical inquiry. New research uncovers new facts, new interpretations re-evaluates the legacies of figures and programs. None of this is especially new, but it does come at a time when historians are deeply divided over some of the founding principles of historical inquiry.

In 2021, the Canadian Historical Association argued that “the existing historical scholarship” makes it clear that Canada is committed to genocide against Indigenous peoples.

“As a profession, historians have therefore contributed in lasting and tangible ways to the Canadian refusal to come to grips with this country’s history of colonization and dispossession,” the statement said.

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This led to an immediate backlash from multiple historians, including some of the most prominent in the field, such as Jack Granatstein and Margaret MacMillan, who signed an open letter that argued the CHA had “fundamentally broken the norms and expectations of professional scholarship” by endorsing a specific historical interpretation.

“They are presenting the Canadian public with a purported ‘consensus’ that does not exist,” the open letter argues.

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