Better To Build Than Break

Until a few days ago, Sir John A. Macdonald was fairly high on the list of achievers of Scottish descent who had carried inherited ideals to remote corners of the world.

But on August 21st, the ever-babbling Internet informed the world the Scottish National Party had ordered a purge of Sir John’s name from its honour rolls “following concerns raised by Canadian indigenous people about his legacy.” The story noted that the precipitous decision by the municipal council of Victoria, capital of British Columbia, to remove a statue of Sir John from City Hall, had encouraged the Scots to act.

How justified are the charges that Sir John was at the helm when grievous acts, unfair and unfounded, were taken against First Nations who had traditionally occupied the territories then coveted by waves of white settlers? How strong the suggestion that he was responsible for the incredible shame of the residential school system?

In our democracy, we have long held the captain of the ship responsible for the conduct of the crew. So, when today’s world blames Sir John for decisions to force natives to obey new government rules or lose their food supplies, we can join the lament against such faulty logic, such inconceivable thinking. But, we must remember whatever bad decisions were made, they were composite decisions … decisions made by cabinet, not by one man.

So, when we talk injustice, reconciliation or whatever we want to call modern cries against ancient sins, let us talk with measured and soft voices; let us talk without anger, always without hidden or obvious calls for revenge and, always, with balanced judgment.

It has become standard for Prime Minister Macdonald’s critics to list native residential schools among his greatest evils. That wise men could actually believe you could remove 150,000 children from their homes, lock them in schools barely a half-step better than prison and improve their minds and wellbeing, is certainly inconceivable today. It happened, but it wasn’t the worst of the things that happened in that shameful chapter of Canadian and Christian church history.

We don’t like to talk too much about the Christian contribution to the shame of residential schools, but we should keep it clearly in mind that many of the faults and sins in those infamous institutions were made by the people who staffed them. And, Sir John A. Macdonald should not be unfairly blamed.

One final thought to throw into the equation before we completely cover our founding father and ourselves in the sackcloth of repentance: Consider this February 2018 press release from the University of Victoria:

A new law program at the University of Victoria is the world’s first to combine the intensive study of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous law, enabling people to work fluently across the two realms.

Students will graduate with two professional degrees, one in Canadian Common Law (Juris Doctor or ‘JD’) and one in Indigenous Legal Orders (Juris Indigenarum Doctor or ‘JID’).  Their education will benefit areas such as environmental protection, Indigenous governance, economic development, housing, child protection and education – areas where currently there is an acute lack of legal expertise to create institutions that are grounded in Indigenous peoples’ law and to build productive partnerships across the two legal systems. 

“This program builds on UVic’s longstanding commitment to, and unique relationship with, the First Peoples of Canada. The foundational work for this program has been underway for several years, building on Indigenous scholarship for which UVic is known internationally,” says UVic President Jamie Cassels. 

“This joint-degree program is also a direct response to a call of action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to establish Indigenous law institutes for the development, use and understanding of Indigenous law.” 

Senator Murray Sinclair, former judge and Chief Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said of the joint JD/JID program and Indigenous Legal Lodge: “They are precisely what we had hoped would follow from the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and they promise to form the very best of legacies: A set of initiatives that reject and reverse the pattern of denigration and neglect identified in our report, and that establish the conditions for effective action long into the future.”

Ii may be hard for some to accept in a province where the horrors of the residential school were so real; but lessons were learned and corrective action has, and is, being taken. There is still a long way to go and the road to reconciliation will always be a tough one to travel with such a heavy load of baggage from the past.

It will best be traveled if we have reminders of the past in clear view and never forget that cries for justice are best seasoned with mercy and delivered with an ambition to build rather than break.




  1. The Irish were discriminated when first they came too Canada but we got past those years
    First Nations Peoples has earned the right too be respected & have the same Rights & Priveleges as any other Canadian.

    All Peoples are created too be equals

    1. Good eye,John.I am sure you are not the first to have spotted the old typo – but you are the first to draw notice to it. I shall now ask by guru son Nic to make the correction. /jimh

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