Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Union Station, Confederation and the Legacy of John A.

"Arriving at MacDonald, MacDonald Station …. Please stand clear of the doors"
As the bicentennial of John A. MacDonald’s birth approaches, and with it Canada’s sesquicentennial, the jockeying is on between politicians and civic leaders attempting to demonstrate which among them has the greatest love for Canada's inaugural Prime Minister. By 2015 we could well wake to find that next to every public building and thoroughfare has been converted into the the Sir John A. MacDonald [Fill-in-the-blank]. 

In Toronto, Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, a future mayoral also-ran, has proposed changing the name of the city's Union Station -- one of the more prominent and most impressive structures in town as well as the country's busiest transport hub -- to Sir John A. MacDonald Station. The reasons why are a little too obvious and entirely void of inventiveness. It is lazy and superficial. Honouring an individual for his or her contribution to the country is about more than simply slapping their name on a building and erecting a commemorative plaque. 

It is entirely reasonable that we should be looking to honour the legacy of MacDonald, particularly at such a milestone, but the rush to lavish praise is entirely myopic, superficial and simply distorts the reality of Canadian history. MacDonald is a key figure, the most visible member of the coterie of Founding Fathers, and the one whose hands are (quite literally) all over the British North America Act (he drafted many of its clauses alone). He is, of course, not alone and while he is an essential his role is necessary but not sufficient. The absence of several key individuals would have been catastrophic.

The most neglected figure in Canadian history is George Brown, often derided and dismissed as an irascible anti-French/anti-Catholic bigot who was neither a good politician nor particularly keen intellectually. MacDonald gets the biographies and lavish praise while George Brown gets the footnotes. Yet Brown was equally indispensable and precisely for those qualities so visible in MacDonald which he himself lacked. 

Charlottetown, 1864 
While is impact on the text and final form of the document that emerged between 1864 and 1867 was negligible, that document would have been impossible (or long delayed) without him. It was Brown who, putting aside his personal and partisan animus toward MacDonald, agreed to join a coalition government [sadly a dirty word in the present] and subjugate himself to John A's leadership. This is an act of humility and public service that is all but unthinkable in Canada's current environment. Other leaders are equally important: Cariter, Tilley and Tupper among those names largely consigned to a marginal place in the history books, all ignored and marginalized in favour the 'Great Man of History' approach taken in relation to MacDonald.

Debates about honouring historical figures are likely to raise questions about their entire legacy and the scope of their thoughts and actions. MacDonald's legacy is no less mixed and fraught with negative episodes. His racist (though perhaps somewhat 'enlightened') views, his drunkenness, a conflict of interest scandal over a century before the concept existed, Riel and his treatment of First Nations (perhaps with the best of intentions) are all important parts of his (and our) legacy and should not simply be cast aside or ignored because he is so indispensable to the founding of the country. Nor should these preclude honouring his role. The trick is to manage it in a way that recognizes achievement without valourization and sainthood by accepting the entire history, warts and all. 

The birth of John A. in 1815 coincides almost precisely to the end of the War of 1812, another event the government has spent millions of dollars valourizing (along with events like Vimy Ridge) because it represents (in some perspectives) a foundational moment (a war to keep Canada British is, actually, quintessentially Canadian). Yet these have come at the expense of other (perhaps more) foundational moments simply because by their quiet and subdued nature they lack the impact associated with battles or Great Men. Some examples:
  • 2013: the 250th anniversary of the Royal Proclamation of 1763, Canada's first constitutional document and one that retains contemporary relevance (no doubt this is precisely why the Conservatives didn't celebrate it)
  • 2014: the 250th anniversary of the end military rule in Quebec
  • 2014: the 240th anniversary of the Quebec Act (vital to Confederation and American Independence)
  • 2014: the 150th anniversary of the Great Coalition and Charlottetown Conferences
  • 2014: the 125th anniversary of Treaty 8
  • 2015: the 175th anniversary of the Act of Union and responsible government
  • 2016: the 70th anniversary of the Canadian Citizenship Act

All fundamentally important, yet subtly so, they are unlikely to receive much attention. The deceit here is that the push to honour MacDonald (and the dismisal of those who wish not to honour him) relies on an argument that we need to celebrate our history while being incredibly selective and myopic about it. It eschews events that are fundamental and no less 'historical' simply because they lack a certain appeal.

Returning to the issue of renaming Union Station, there is an irony here that, in many respects, the building and its name are already a fitting legacy to MacDonald's accomplishments. While the station's name speaks to the union of rail companies in a single facility, it could equally apply to the union of the provinces which it unites through the rail connection. Consider, for example, that the station's Great Hall contains features which explicitly note this meaning of union: the names of the communities across the country that it connects are permanently etched in Canadian stone.

The more fitting memorial to John A. the nation builder would be to affirm Union Station in this national meaning, a meaning that speaks directly to what MacDonald -- and others -- helped to accomplish: "An Act for the Union of Canada". MacDonald was certainly a great man in terms of what he helped accomplish, but he was also human. The focus on the 'Great Man' approach to his legacy distorts the very history many are trying to protect and preserve by essentializing it and reducing it to the role of a single individual with unsurpassed influence. History is a collective act of many people, great and small, known and unknown. MacDonald helped to bring us together, an act only made possible because others did the same with him at at a time when he was content to go it alone. Union Station reflects this better than "John A. MacDonald Station" ever could.

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