OPINION: In defence of Canada Day, Sir John A. Macdonald… and Pierre Trudeau

An opinion piece by Senator Don Plett, published in The Carillon on June 30, 2021.

History, it is said, is written by the victors.

The push to recognize Canada’s history – pure and unvarnished – has been building for years. In 2008, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered an apology on behalf of the Government of Canada for the Residential School Policy, whose consequences he recognized as "profoundly negative", and established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC went on to document and detail atrocities over the following six years.

Amplified by the horrific findings in Kamloops and Brandon, calls have been made by some to "cancel" or "suspend" Canada Day.

I don’t agree.

As Indigenous Services Canada Minister Marc Miller stated to Global News:

"Knocking things down, breaking things is not my preferred option. Turning my eyes away from things is not my preferred option. Looking at things as painful as they are, explaining why they are is my preferred option."

The world is full of painful reminders of dark chapters in human history. No peoples, no institution, no state or government is innocent of crimes or atrocities because it is built on the fallibility of man. Understanding history is about understanding the human experience. It is about recognizing that the historical experience of all peoples involves both triumph as well as darkness.

Are the English only to be remembered for what was perpetrated against the Acadian people? Is New France only to be defined by its war against English frontier settlements during the French and Indian War? Should the Iroquois people only be remembered for their efforts to eradicate the Huron people?

But just as humans are capable of war, harm and destruction, we are capable of growth, understanding and compassion.

Sir John A. Macdonald was, indeed, one of the architects of residential schools. He also completed the national railroad that connected the country from coast-to-coast, and he brought provinces like British Columbia and Manitoba into Confederation.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s government maintained and supported the residential school system while also strongly opposing Asian immigration. Yet he also negotiated a compromise between French and English Canada and championed decentralized federalism. Prime Minister Mackenzie King interned Japanese Canadians because of their race, but he also pushed forward policies that helped improve the lives of millions of Canadian workers. Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien tabled the 1969 White Paper which called for the assimilation of all Indigenous peoples, yet Mr. Trudeau also saw the repatriation of the Constitution and Mr. Chrétien pushed democracy within the African Commonwealth.

The duality of our history cannot be disregarded. Canada, as a nation, can no longer ignore our past, but should also not let itself be defined solely by these dark chapters.

If we continue down that path, the implications are extremely serious for our national identity and well-being. Instead, we need to understand both the good and the bad.

As reconciliation efforts advance and awareness of these historical failures grows, we are seeing a shift in the history taught in our schools and universities. New national holidays and commemorative days bring more opportunities to learn and reflect on the negative impacts Canada’s discriminatory practices and policies have had, and are still having, on various communities. We are also increasingly discussing these events in our national debates, shining a spotlight on topics previously not raised. While we are making progress as a nation, we recognize that much work remains.

That said, just as we need days to remember the negative, we need days to celebrate the positive. Learning about the complexities of our history should not take away our annual opportunity to take pride in our country, and to remember all that Canadians have accomplished.

Canada Day is a day to celebrate and recognize everything that is good about the land in which we live. It celebrates our coming of age as a people. It celebrates our ability to create a united and democratic federation. It celebrates the union of English and French in that same federation. It honours the achievements and global contributions of our diverse population. It celebrates our values of multiculturalism and pluralism. It allows us to reflect on the diversity that is our strength, diversity ranging from those whose ancestors have been here for centuries to first-generation immigrants. All of this is worth celebrating, especially when we consider how many people strive, year after year, to come to Canada to share in that experience.

Without acknowledging the good as well as the ugly, we cannot keep moving forward. I will be celebrating Canada Day this year and every year because it is both our failures and successes, our weaknesses and our strengths, that have created the Canada we live in today.

< Back to: Published Works