Historians Erase Sir John A. Macdonald's Name from Book Prize
The main association of Canadian history scholars has voted to remove Sir John A. Macdonald’s name from a prestigious prize, joining a movement to stop celebrating the country’s first prime minister as a hero.
The decision to rename the 40-year-old prize the “CHA prize for Best Scholarly Book in Canadian History” came Tuesday at the annual meeting of the Canadian Historical Association in Regina. Members voted overwhelmingly in favour of the change.
James Daschuk, a University of Regina historian and winner of the Sir John A. Macdonald prize in 2014, said the name change is a small gesture for the country’s professional historians to make at a time of reconciliation with Indigenous people.
“It’s often the argument that Macdonald did a lot of good things,” Daschuk said in an interview. “He built the country. But he built the country on the backs of the Indigenous people.”
Daschuk called Macdonald “a polarizing figure,” and in the months since association president Adele Perry of the University of Manitoba announced the proposed change, there has been animated debate. Writing in the latest issue of the association journal Intersections, Perry quoted some of the responses the association has received from members, whom she did not identify.
“I don’t think it is appropriate to name such an important historical prize after a person who has, at best, a mixed historical legacy, and at worst, was a key player in Indigenous cultural genocide in Canada,” one member wrote. Another noted Macdonald’s role in “white-supremacist and genocidal policies whose profoundly damaging repercussions are felt to this day” and argued that changing the name provides a “teachable moment.”
On the other side of the debate, one member said it was “ahistorical and arrogant” to “condemn a man so associated with the founding of Canada because he was a product of his age.” Another called the name change “political correctness gone insane” and accused the association of caving into “fad and revision.”
To some, the change represents a first step down a slippery slope. “Don’t change this name, or next you will have to burn all books written of him and forever hide our history,” one said.
Macdonald was prime minister when the federal government approved the first residential schools in the country. Daschuk, author of Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, showed how Macdonald’s government used hunger as a weapon to force Indigenous communities onto reserves.
Christopher Dummitt, a history professor at Trent University, dropped his association membership over the move to strip Macdonald’s name from the $5,000 prize, awarded since 1977 to “the non-fiction work of Canadian history judged to have made the most significant contribution to an understanding of the Canadian past.”
He called the change “a bad idea, because it is essentially against history, against recognizing the full complexity of the past. It’s about eradicating figures of honour from the past.” He said its adoption by association members reflects “a moral puritanism which really is infecting large chunks of humanities and social sciences scholars.”
He recognizes that Macdonald “was a complicated figure” who saw Indigenous people as standing in the way of creating a nation. “And he was going to create Canada, and get them out of the way. That is absolutely true.” But that attitude was in keeping with the times, he said.
The historians’ move follows a call last summer by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario to have Macdonald’s name removed from schools in the province in recognition of “his central role as an architect of genocide against Indigenous peoples.” Premier Kathleen Wynne rejected the request.
In January, Sir John’s Public House in Kingston, Ont., housed in Macdonald’s onetime law office, changed its name to The Public house, citing a need for reconciliation.
Raymond Blake, head of Canadian studies at the University of Regina, said the push to drop Macdonald’s name casts him as a villain, when history is rarely black and white.
“We have to deal with these things as historians and try to understand them in context, in the period in which people were living,” he said. “People are complicated. If we go looking for people who are racist or who don’t have the views we have … we’re going to find those people very easily.”
The association, created in 1922 to foster the scholarly study of Canadian history, has nearly 1,000 members, mostly from academia.