Patrice Dutil: Canadians refuse Sir John A. Macdonald to be canceled

New poll finds Canada‘s first prime minister is one of the most recognized people in this country’s history

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The vandalism carried out in the summer of 2021 against the statues of Sir John A. Macdonald, Queen Victoria and Egerton Ryerson was only supported by a small fringe of Canadians. And a new Leger-Postmedia poll shows that Macdonald’s reputation has only improved with each attack – each time his name has been removed from a building and each time a monument to him has been torn down.

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Considering the onslaught of hate against the first Prime Minister of Canada, this is remarkable. If the polls can be compared, the Angus-Reid poll conducted in the summer of 2018 showed that 55% of Canadians had a favorable opinion of Macdonald and opposed the removal of statues in his honor. In the summer of 2020, when the Macdonald monuments were removed or destroyed in Charlottetown and Montreal, a Light Poll for the Association for Canadian Studies again showed that more than half of the respondents opposed their dismissal (71% mainly opposed any violent dismissal).

The new poll shows that Macdonald is one of the most recognized people in Canadian history. He defeats Métis hero Louis Riel, suffragist politician Agnes MacPhail and the father of Canadian Medicare, Tommy Douglas. The poll also shows that 67% of people who know Macdonald have a favorable impression of him, including 25% who have a “very favorable” impression. Among those who claim to know Macdonald, ethnicity makes almost no difference (67% among Caucasians and 65% among BIPOC respondents).

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Macdonald’s reputation only improved with each attack

Other results are less encouraging. Fifty-three percent of Quebec respondents could not identify Macdonald as Canada’s first prime minister. This is hardly surprising since Canadian history has been virtually absent from the school curriculum in this province for three generations. Perhaps more distressing is the revelation that 36 per cent of respondents in the Atlantic region had no idea who he was, until one remembers that there is no need to obtain a Canadian history credit towards a high school diploma in these provinces.

The real difference is age. The older you are, the more likely you are to know Macdonald. Seventy percent of respondents aged 55 and older said they knew Macdonald, and 72 percent had a favorable impression of Canada’s first prime minister. In contrast, only 58% of 18-34 year olds knew of Macdonald, but even among this group, 61% had a favorable impression. Twenty percent of young adults had no idea who he was; nearly a quarter of respondents of all ages who identified as BIPOC either.

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There is a refreshing opening to the historical record revealed in this latest investigation. A plurality (44%) of respondents agreed that the “whole story” of individuals like Macdonald should be told. Canadians say they can accept it — good and bad alike — but that arguments dismissing the positive role played by Macdonald and his generation win very little favour. Another 30 per cent felt it was ‘wrong to attempt to rewrite or ignore history in an attempt to downplay ‘people like Macdonald’ because their actions at the time don’t look right. by today’s standards. Only one in 10 said they were “embarrassed” by people like Macdonald. These views were fairly consistent across the country, with respondents in British Columbia and Alberta particularly emphasizing “telling the whole story”.

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  1. Sir John A MacDonald Public School in Brampton was renamed Nibi Emosaawdang Public School.

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Most respondents (52%) did not want Macdonald’s role to be seen exclusively through the prism of residential schools. Support for Macdonald in this regard was strongest in Ontario and Alberta and weakest in Quebec and Atlantic Canada, but still dominated majority opinion in those provinces. Interestingly, respondents living in Manitoba/Saskatchewan were particularly hostile to the idea of ​​Macdonald’s “negative contribution” to history being highlighted. Most respondents were also opposed to the idea that Canadians should “embrace the future and forget the past.”

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This is where I’m a little worried. According to the Angus-Reid poll conducted four years ago, 70% of Canadians “agreed” that the name and likeness of Canada’s first prime minister remain in public view. The recent Léger-Postmedia poll showed that only 60% of respondents agreed that Macdonald “needs” to be celebrated as a significant figure in Canada. The questions were slightly different and can only be compared with skepticism, but the trend is not positive. More disturbing is the revelation that many young adults (36 per cent) agreed that Macdonald’s role should be minimized and that “greater attention should be given to his negative contribution” to Canadian history.

Respondents to the Léger-Postmedia survey were aware that the past is not the present. Although 44% of respondents said they were ready to “forgive the actions of certain historical figures and accept the good things they did in the development of Canada as well as the bad”, more of them ( 46%) said they had not. to know. Women and young adults were much less likely to agree with this statement, although 53% of women said it would depend on a case-by-case basis.

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This avalanche of numbers shows one thing: Canadians are still attached to their roots and eager to learn more about their history. They want more Canadian history to be taught in schools and talked about in the media. They will reward public figures who are comfortable talking about the past: people willing to acknowledge and even right past injustices but who can at the same time speak shamelessly about past generations. They will punish those who know nothing about Canada’s past or talk about it casually.

Special at the National Post

Patrice Dutil is a professor of politics and public administration at Ryerson University. His podcast on Canadian history is “Witness to Yesterday”.

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