All of us are creatures of circumstance, sharing the attitudes and prejudices of our times. Cockfighting and bear-baiting were once permitted activities. In recent memory, fairground ‘freak shows’ were tolerated, and cigarette smoking considered a sign of sophistication. All of us are likewise capable of admitting to personal failings, shortcomings inevitably magnified in the case of public figures. If these are to be admired for their contributions to society, their faults must be considerably outweighed by their accomplishments. Admiral Nelson saved a grateful nation from invasion. Napoleon, a brilliant general, simplified the legal system with his Code Napoleon, sponsored the expedition that discovered the Rosetta Stone, and re-organized education. Cromwell is justly memorialized outside Parliament for his principled stand against the contemptuous indifference of Charles I, who mistakenly believed he could rule without the consent of the governed and was executed as a result. Bolivar’s leadership led to independence for six South American nations. Canada came into existence largely because of the statesmanship of Sir John A. Macdonald, a Father of Confederation, and our first Prime Minister.
Sir John A. is merely the latest of a number of public figures now demonized by revisionists for reprehensible, even allegedly ‘genocidal,’ attitudes to indigenous populations in former colonies. Captain James Cook and the founder of Halifax, Edward Cornwallis, have had statues to their memory removed from public view. Sir John A. favoured the establishment of residential schools for the Canadian aboriginal population. Children were to be taken from their parents and familiar surroundings to be assimilated into a different culture far from home. Separating children from their parents is never a good idea, as President Trump discovered recently when he tried to do the same with illegal immigrants from Spanish America. There should have been an outcry against such heartlessness in Canada, but it was then the misguided practice of public officials to break up disadvantaged families ‘for the betterment of the children.’ A former child migrant in Australia explains what happened to him:
We were transported…to the other side of the world. Our crime for the most part is that we were the children of broken relationships. Our average age was 8 years and 9 months. We were stripped of nationality, culture and birthright…of our personhood, human rights and our dignity….
The speaker, now an Australian adult, was English. He shares the residential school victims’ misery with countless other city children sent abroad, never to see home or parents again. Hundreds of them arrived in Canada to work as cheap labour on farms in the wilderness, with tacit public approval and the connivance of British and Canadian officialdom, which ignored the abuse for decades. We cannot, nor should we try to, atone for mistakes made by our forebears. We have enough of our own without shouldering the burden of past iniquities, nor should we try to bury the past by denying that thoughtless human error or deliberate wickedness has all too often caused great harm. A nation that forgets its past, as Churchill said, has no future.
On the main street of Picton, Ontario, there is a lifesize statue of Sir John A. called ‘Holding Court.’ It shows him as a young lawyer successfully defending himself in court. Yet in the court of public opinion, he is still on trial, and in Victoria, he has been convicted. But of what, and on whose authority?