Globe and Mail – Robert Jago
At their recent conference, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario passed a motion calling for a debate to be opened over the renaming of schools named after Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. The motion states that this should be done “in recognition of his central role as the architect of genocide against Indigenous peoples.”
Few Indigenous people would oppose this motion in principle – the consensus is that Sir John A. Macdonald’s name shouldn’t be on anything other than his tombstone. However, in our communities, few people are discussing this issue, nor do we see it as a priority when looking at decolonizing the public school system.
Ontario’s public schools makes frequent appearances in the Indigenous press. Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen stories on the slow implementation of recommendations made by the inquiry investigating the death of seven First Nations youth in Thunder Bay; and we’ve seen the grieving family of Barbara Kentner, the First Nations victim in a racially motivated killing, forced to flee their homes because of threats made against their children at school.
Each issue is worthy of wider coverage, but across the non-Indigenous media, the only issue being discussed is Sir John A. Macdonald. The outrage present in the Indigenous community over the treatment of the Kentner family isn’t heard, and is drowned out by shouting back and forth between different groups of non-native people arguing about the name given to a dozen or so schools.
Indigenous people are tired of seeing our politics knocked off track by these flavour-of-the-month intrusions by non-natives. Far from decolonizing the public schools, the ETFO motion is an example of Ontario’s teachers colonizing the public debate over Indigenous policy.
Indigenous people don’t need the ETFO to tell us that Sir John A. Macdonald was a villain. He charged Louis Riel with high treason; he starved First Nations people to make way for the railroad; he started the residential-school system; he is, as far as I can tell, the only Prime Minister to ever use artillery on people he claimed the right to govern.
Some have argued – including a contributor to this newspaper – that we should view these crimes through a 19th-century lens, as if the people of that era couldn’t see the wrong in shelling one’s own country or executing a member of Parliament. Indigenous writer Chelsea Vowel noted that the argument against presentism was an argument for viewing the issue through a whites-only 19th-century perspective, saying: “Native ppl in Sir JAM’s time had values [too] including ‘killing/dispossessing us is bad.’”
Debating the racism implicit in arguments about presentism is an academically interesting debate. But today in 2017, the more valuable debate isn’t about Sir John A. Macdonald’s name, or the values of his white contemporaries, but his living legacy – one which, still this year, has led to the deaths of Indigenous schoolchildren in Ontario.
Don’t mistake this as another facile dismissal of a controversy by saying that First Nations people have more important things to worry about. The First Nations community is big, diverse, and can protest and chew gum at the same time. But it’s important to note that this isn’t a First Nations’ motion, and the ETFO is not an Indigenous organization.
Unlike First Nations, the ETFO is not an enormous and diverse community. They are not able to take on an unlimited number of issues at the same time. Focusing on this one issue means they are not dealing with those issues that Indigenous people believe are important.
The ETFO is hijacking media coverage and making reconciliation all about them. Reconciliation isn’t about earnest and well-meaning non-natives beating the drum for the one and only Indigenous issue that’s made it through to their political consciousness.
For people as socially important as teachers, reconciliation should start with listening. Perhaps they should pass a motion calling for the use of one of their ubiquitous professional development days to bring in Indigenous parents, educators and activists, and listen to what they say are the actual priorities for First Nations people in the education system.
The union says that Sir John A. Macdonald’s “namesake buildings create an unsafe space to learn and to work.” There are 23 elementary schools in the Thunder Bay School district. While none of them are named after Sir John A. Macdonald, the school district remains one of the most dangerous in Canada for First Nations kids.
It seems that Sir John A. doesn’t need a school named after him to have his cruel legacy marked. His legacy is ever present, in the threats that forced the grieving Kentner children from their school, and in Thunder Bay’s waterways, where the bodies of Indigenous people are too often found.
Should Ontario’s elementary-school teachers want to make a real move toward reconciliation, they would help amplify that discussion instead of redirecting it onto this tangent.
Robert Jago is an entrepreneur based in Montreal and a member of the Kwantlen First Nation