Debating (Canadian) Presentism: Narrative, Nation, and Macdonald in 2021

Jerry Bannister

Like many Canadian historians, I have followed with interest the ongoing debate over John A. Macdonald, including the recent letter sponsored by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Among the thoughtful responses to the letter, I’d highlight three points. First, as Andrew Nurse explains in Borealia, we should be wary of pro-Macdonald calls for “balance,” which serve as a type of conservative doublethink. Second, as Christopher Moore argues on his blog, we should recoil from conservatives’ vision of Canada qua Macdonald. And, third, as Chris points out in a pithy summary of the pro-Macdonald essays in the National Post, we should be skeptical of, “well, he was not as bad as people are saying, and presentism is dangerous.”

I have 2 cents to add, perhaps with a loonie thrown in for good measure. Others may have already made this point and I’ve just missed it, but it’s important to note the emotional tone of the discussion. There seems to be an unspoken presumption that everyone has strongly personal feelings about Macdonald, for or against, as if we’re discussing an elderly uncle living upstairs, with a family arguing over what to do with him. As the Macdonald-Laurier web site quotes Patrice Dutil, “The sustained attacks on monuments to Sir John A. Macdonald and the attacks on his good name in schools and at Queen’s University in 2020 prompted many of us to simply say: Enough!” Enough!? Good name? If you read through the web site and its attendant materials, you will find calls to look at Macdonald with a dispassionate eye, but for me what stands out is the anger. As the web site states clearly, right at the top, this is a defence of Macdonald. The reference to defences and verdicts is no accident, and the courtroom metaphor appears in similar venues, such as the Dorchester Review.

I tend to like metaphors in historical debate, which often add layers of understanding and style, but in this instance, I find it troubling. I find it troubling because the pro-Macdonald collective make it clear that they view him as an honourable man, neither angel nor devil, but one of our greatest immigrant success stories, “the most respected and honoured Canadian of his era.” What matters, here, is that while acknowledging failures, this perspective places so much emphasis on virtue and respect. To disrespect Macdonald is to disrespect Canada, and you can connect the dots where this perspective ultimately leads. Macdonald does not have a good name; he had a name; and as a Canadian citizen I’m thankfully free to criticize or ignore him.

No one I know would question appeals for accuracy, balance, and a full appreciation of Canada’s past. But it’s both disingenuous and dangerous to mix questions of honour into the discussion. One can love Canada yet feel little for Macdonald. I suspect that millions of Canadians do just that. Given the rise in violent extremism that we’re witnessing, especially in the United States, this is precisely the wrong time to be personalizing Canadian history. As we face a cruel pandemic and unrelenting social crises, it’s tempting to ignore the pro-Macdonald campaign or dismiss it as mere cranky complaint. But I don’t know how we can ignore statements like this one:

Those who see Canada’s history as little more than a shameful series of mistakes and failures have grown increasingly vocal in calling for the shunning of figures like our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. Macdonald, however, is owed not our contempt and derision, but our thoughtful measured thanks.

No. Canadians can make up their own minds about how they feel towards Macdonald. They do not owe him their thanks. If historians choose to study Macdonald, they certainly owe him the same treatment they would accord any person or topic: truthfulness, context, and reasonableness. Whether they feel thankful towards him, or anyone else, is their own personal business.

The invocation of indebtedness strikes at the heart of the problem. What’s dangerous about the Macdonald-Laurier perspective is, in the end, its slipperiness. While issuing calls to accuracy and rigour, it appeals to emotion and pride. While making appeals for balance, it insists on seeing Macdonald as a hero. In making Canada, the statement says, he “did so with courage, wisdom and integrity.” In seeing Canadian history through the selective lens of virtue, this perspective blurs the line between national and nationalist history. To study Canada is, well, to study it. To study Canada is not, and should not, be to honour Canada, Macdonald, or anyone else. Just as we see the past through the eyes of the present, we need to cope with the distortions of our own personal identity and political views. The point of history is to try, as best we can, to be clear, reasonable, and truthful. It is hard enough to research and write good history without saddling it with baggage about national pride and heroism.

The point of history is to try, as best we can, to be clear, reasonable, and truthful. It is hard enough to research and write good history without saddling it with baggage about national pride and heroism.

Which brings me to my other cent. As someone who has supported Canadian history (as opposed to Canadian nationalist history), I think this pro-Macdonald campaign undermines our efforts to nurture the study of Canada. In holding Macdonald up as a hero (however flawed), it makes it harder for those of us who genuinely value Canadian history. The last thing we need these days is populist rhetoric that pits us into pro- or anti-Macdonald camps, which is a short political hop from pro- or anti-Canada camps. It’s particularly problematic when this rhetoric gets mixed with warnings against presentism. On this point, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute quotes Brian Lee Crowley: “It is easy to criticize the past and the decisions made there. But it is a conceit of each and every generation that it alone is free from poor judgments, intellectual shortcomings and historical myopia.” It is indeed. It is also easy to valorize the past. It is a conceit of each generation that it alone is fighting a noble struggle to defend the honour of its dead heroes. And it is singularly irresponsible to condemn presentism while practising it.


Jerry Bannister teaches history at Dalhousie University


Featured image: A masked statue of John A. Macdonald in Charlottetown. Ken Linton, CBC.


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