As people across Canada grieve and contemplate ways to hold colonizers to account after the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found buried under a former residential school, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney again defended the former Canadian prime minister who created the residential school system.
It started when a reporter asked Kenney on Tuesday whether Calgary, Alberta, schools named after figures like Macdonald should change their names—something one school was quick to do this week. Rather than defer to Indigenous communities, who have been asking for the removal of colonial statues and other tributes for years, Kenney defended Macdonald’s “imperfect” legacy.
“Canada is a great historical achievement. It is an imperfect country but it is still a great country, just as John A. Macdonald was an imperfect man, but was still a great leader,” Kenney said.
Kenney pointed out that he introduced a bill to recognize “Sir John A. Macdonald Day” while serving as a federal MP.
“No Macdonald, no Canada,” Kenney said. “Without him, the country would not exist.”
Another statue of Macdonald was taken down and thrown into storage, this time in Prince Edward Island, after Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation confirmed last week it found the remains of 215 undocumented children, some as young as 3, buried under the former Catholic-run Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
Macdonald notoriously set up the residential school system, which was used by the government to forcibly assimilate an estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children. Sweeping abuses were common at the schools and amounted to genocide. The last school didn’t close until 1996.
Dozens more sites like the one discovered by Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc are expected to surface going forward, since an estimated 4,000 to 15,000 children, many undocumented, were killed at residential schools nationwide.
“Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools, where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men,” Macdonald said of the schools at the time. The point, he said, was to remove children from their parents, whom he called “savages.”
Kenney said the cancellation of figures like Macdonald runs counter to reconciliation, a term that symbolizes ongoing work to repair relationships between Canada and Indigenous Nations.
“If we want to get into cancelling every figure in our history who took positions on issues at the time that we now judge harshly, and rightly, in historical retrospect...then I think almost the entire founding leadership gets cancelled,” Kenney said. “Without seeking to cancel our history, we need to know more about it.”
Kenney also questioned why Macdonald is singled out when several historical leaders, including Tommy Douglas and Alberta’s Famous Five, supported eugenics.
But efforts to call out other figures are, in fact, ongoing. This week, Ryerson University journalism publications announced they'd change their names, since Egerton Ryerson was “indisputably” a residential school architect. The Calgary school that changed its name was originally named after Hector-Louis Langevin, yet another leader behind residential schools.
Grand Chief Vernon Watchmaker of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations, which covers territory in parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan, called Kenney’s comments “insensitive” and “very concerning.”
“Just when we think we are experiencing acts of reconciliation, the premier contradicts all the efforts toward an understanding,” Watchmaker said in a statement to Global News. “This country and the province was established at the cost of our lives and well-being.”
Kenney has faced steep criticism for failing to uphold Indigenous rights before. Last year, when a Macdonald statue was toppled in Montreal, Kenney said he’d like to see it installed at Alberta’s legislature. Also last year, Kenney refused to fire a speech writer who referred to residential schools as a “bogus genocide story,” and made it illegal for land defenders and protesters, many of whom are Indigenous, to mobilize at pipelines and other resource extraction sites.
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Anyone experiencing distress or pain as a result of residential schools can call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419). It’s available 24/7. More resources available here.