By Sally Barnes
One problem with today’s popular “cancel culture” movement is that extremists damage their cause by alienating those of us who may share some of their concerns but are disgusted by their actions.
Our first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, tops the charts in Canada for falling victim to this trend.
There was a time when we believed in learning from our mistakes.
Today’s cancel culture means shaming and erasing dissenting opinions, practices, or actions. It smacks of revenge, envy, and settling scores at any cost.
From our universities to our parks and public institutions—a vandalized statue here, bombardment of venom on social media there—our cultural icons still living and long dead are under attack.
Victims of cancel culture are humiliated, their work ridiculed, and careers and reputations destroyed.
As the practice becomes more prevalent, once-outspoken defenders of free speech and culture fall silent to avoid the inevitable tidal wave of abuse.
In this age of social media, to stand up and be counted and to speak one’s mind have become acts of masochism.
As a history/political junkie and longtime resident of Sir John’s “hometown” of Kingston, I am especially saddened and bitter over what is happening.
A few examples:
- A statue of Sir John was toppled and beheaded in Montreal earlier this fall.
- A similar statue was vandalized at Queen’s Park this summer and boarded up for protection.
- Sir John’s larger than life statue erected in 1895 in downtown Kingston is vandalized on a regular basis. The city is studying whether it should be removed as protesters have demanded along with the change of bridge, street, and school names.
- A life-size bronze statue called “Holding Court” designed by Canadian artist Ruth Abernathy that now sits in front of the Picton Library may be headed for storage. The depiction of Macdonald’s first case in the local courthouse in 1834 should be removed, says a local working group. Council will vote on this next month.
- Two years ago the city council in Victoria voted to remove the Macdonald statue at City Hall.
- The principal of Queen’s University announces Macdonald’s name will be stripped from the building that houses its law school (despite threats by many big donors to end their financial support).
To cancel and discredit Macdonald’s historic role in the formation of this First Capital of Canada and the greatness of this country is madness.
John Alexander Macdonald moved to Kingston from Glasgow at age five with his parents. He was educated here, practiced law, elected to Parliament at age 29, and became the key architect of Confederation and our first prime minister. He lies buried in the local cemetery.
Macdonald’s detractors either don’t know of his greatness or want only to dwell on the ugly conditions of his time.
In the words of Macdonald biographer Richard Gwyn, Canada would not exist had it not been for Macdonald’s vision and leadership. “No Macdonald, no Canada,” Gwyn concluded after extensive research and study.
Bruce Pardy, a professor of law at Queen’s, says colleagues regard him as a barbarian for his views on Macdonald and cancel culture.
“In fact, Macdonald was enlightened for his time, but that will make no difference. The test for tearing down statues and cancelling historical figures has become whether their values and behavior conform to modern progressive sensibilities,” Pardy wrote in an article for the National Post.
There is great irony in Queen’s stripping Macdonald’s name from its law school. He was a strong believer in the rule of law and was one of the original founders of the university.
Long-time senior public servant Graham Scott, in a letter to the Globe and Mail, had this to say:
“If piling all the blame for past failures on Sir John A. Macdonald would atone, it might be worth it. The sad truth is that society in the 19th century was racist, and our history confirms that the actions of Macdonald reflected Parliament and Canadian society.
“Where were the opposition and all the subsequent prime ministers who turned a blind eye to the residential schools?”
Scott also raised the issue of George Monro Grant the famed, long-term principal of Queen’s, friend and advisor to Macdonald, and a leader in the Presbyterian Church, which operated many residential schools. Grant Hall is the hallmark of the Queen’s campus.
“How does Queen’s make the exception and Macdonald the scapegoat?” asks Scott, who says society should focus on dealing with racism and prejudice—not scapegoating.
Another letter-writer went even further in applying cancel culture to Queen’s, saying the university is named after Queen Victoria whom she described as “an ardent imperialist and fierce opponent of women’s suffrage. In the name of equity, diversity and inclusivity, Queen’s should do the right thing and rename the university.”
Another Globe letter that caught my eye was written by an associate professor and Queen’s National Scholar in Indigenous Studies. Recently arrived in Kingston along with her husband and Aboriginal family, the woman said her eight-year-old asked her “why people in this city have so many roads and buildings and statues to honour a man who did bad things to our ancestors.”
Like a lot of other kids, this one obviously had never been told anything good about our first PM.
Patrice Dutil, writing in the Toronto Star, bemoaned the lack of positive or realistic teaching about Sir John A. Macdonald.
Dutil, co-editor of Macdonald at 200: New Reflections and Legacies, says the Ontario school curriculum “ignores Macdonald’s vital contributions and instead tells students that Canada was programmed to be a human embarrassment from its very beginning. Sadly, the gist of the Ontario curriculum is representative of what is taught across the country. It needs to be fixed urgently.”
Amen to that!
Some years ago I was invited to join a small group to advise the city’s tourism office.
I have long regretted that we inadequately promote Macdonald’s Kingston roots and our status as Canada’s First Capital.
As part of a marketing scheme, I proposed hiring a young person (history/political science major) to impersonate Sir John A and frequent the tourist district each summer to greet visitors and chat up the kids about Canada and our historic city. Late in the afternoon our Sir John A look-alike might even drop by his favourite watering hole, the old Royal Tavern, and talk politics over a wee dram.
The plan might have worked then but today no one in their right mind would want the job. Our famous hometown boy would be about as popular as a skunk at a garden party and sent packing.
And a sad closing note: The above mentioned advisory group included a historian and huge Macdonald fan who over the years devoted countless hours promoting an appreciation for our first prime minister.
Like so many others, he has grown silent. The final straw came when his family home was defaced and his car damaged after he publicly condemned those who repeatedly throw paint over the Macdonald statue in our city’s downtown.
Cancel culture is robbing us of our past and endangering our future.
Sally Barnes has enjoyed a distinguished career as a writer, journalist and author. Her work has been recognized in a number of ways, including receiving a Southam Fellowship in Journalism at Massey College at the University of Toronto. A self-confessed political junkie, she has worked in the back-rooms for several Ontario premiers. In addition to a number of other community contributions, Sally Barnes served a term as president of the Ontario Council on the Status of Women. She is a former business colleague of Doppler’s Hugh Mackenzie and lives in Kingston, Ontario.
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