Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s cranky lecture about “cancel culture” yesterday notwithstanding, no one is proposing that John A. Macdonald’s name be erased from the pages of Canadian history or we cease to study his role as Canada’s first prime minister.
On the contrary, if we truly want to progress as a country, we need to study prime minister Macdonald’s deeds more critically and with more rigour than in our past.
Obviously, our first prime minister’s place in the history books is assured, although that may not be much comfort to people like Kenney who would deify him.
But if Macdonald’s place in history is safe, does that mean his government’s policy of using residential schools for Indigenous children as a network of vicious re-education camps ought to be glossed over, ignored, or tarted up with excuses as in the past?
Obviously not, one would think. It seems Kenney may disagree, however.
Does it mean Macdonald’s name belongs on a school, as Kenney appears to think, given his effort to use schools to cancel all Indigenous culture?
Or does this mean the premier proposes to create the Macdonald ruins on Alberta’s legislature grounds, populated by beheaded, toppled and defaced statues of Macdonald from other parts of Canada?
From Kenney’s scolding tone as he answered a reporter’s questions during a news conference about COVID-19 vaccinations yesterday, you almost wonder what he will propose next. A reliquary in the legislature rotunda containing a piece of the late PM’s ossified liver?
When Shannon Johnston of CTV Calgary asked the premier if he thought Macdonald’s name should be removed from a Calgary school, he launched crossly into a lengthy defence of Macdonald’s record.
He cited Richard Gwyn‘s claim that, without Macdonald, the country would not exist. With due respect to Gwyn, who died last year and who may have been a better journalist than he was a historian, this is nonsense. Canada was a strategic project of the Colonial Office in London, and had Macdonald not been available, someone else who fit the bill would have been found.
Kenney quickly raised the spectre of “cancel culture” to characterize the understandable desire of many Canadians to remove Macdonald’s name from educational institutions in light of his appalling record in that field, and to remove statues that promote a misleading narrative of his achievements.
The premier soon moved on to doing his best to tarnish the reputations of a long list of Canadian historical figures — flawed, as we all are — especially if they were Liberals or are admired by people with progressive beliefs. His targets yesterday: Tommy Douglas, the Famous Five, Wilfrid Laurier, William Lyon Mackenzie King, and, of course, Pierre Trudeau.
“If we go full force into cancel culture, then we are cancelling most if not all of our history,” he huffed.
“This is the problem with your line of questioning,” he lectured, donning a professorial mien. “If the new standard is to cancel any figure in our history associated with what we now rightly regard as historical injustices, then essentially that is the vast majority of our history!”
Indeed, only Stephen Harper was found suitable for approbation in Kenney’s monologue, which rolled into his response to another reporter’s question about the United Conservative Party government’s deeply flawed social studies curriculum.
At one point, as Kenney’s jeremiad seemed to be winding down, Johnston asked: “So, would you still like to see a statue of John A. Macdonald at the legislature?” This was, presumably, a reference to the premier’s offer last August to find a sweet Alberta home for the statue toppled in Montreal.
This set him off again. “I really think it’s inappropriate to focus on one or two figures,” he complained. “If we want to get into a debate about cancelling Canadian history, we need to understand that it means all of our history.”
This too is obviously false, a straw man set up to attack anyone who criticizes symbolic celebration and justification of the wrongs of history.
Cancel culture isn’t even a thing, for heaven’s sake!
It is a quintessentially American rhetorical response to any criticism of the systemic racism that underpins the modern Republican electoral coalition, which exploits the enduring curse of the United States’ original sin, human slavery.
Obviously Canadian politicians of the right are not immune to this kind of rhetorical trickery.
When a politician resorts to decrying cancel culture, it usually represents a defence of the continued glorification of past wrongs.
Albertans should decide for themselves what Kenney’s goal was yesterday. His lecture begins at 36:47 minutes into the YouTube video of the news conference.
David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.
Image credit: Colin Knowles/Flickr