Lynn McDonald: A new museum to reclaim our history from those who want to topple it The true historical contributions of Sir John A. Macdonald, Henry Dundas and Egerton Ryerson must not be forgotten

National Post

Lynn McDonald,  Published Jun 07, 2023  

Winnipeg is justly proud of its Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which opened in 2014, but we need a new museum in Canada to flag current concerns: a Canadian Museum of Misinformation, or possibly the Canadian Propaganda Museum. Whatever the title, Toronto deserves to have it.

The statue of Sir John A. Macdonald in front of the provincial legislature, Queen’s Park, is currently boarded up. Of the nine other Macdonald statues in the country, only the one on Parliament Hill is still in view. The others were put into storage, often after being defaced or, as with statue in Montreal, beheaded.

Toronto can also boast about beheading the statue of Egerton Ryerson, who brought us free public  schools and free public libraries. The misinformation on him amounts to reversing his pro-Indigenous work — he was named a “brother” by an Ojibway chief and given an Ojibway name for his support. Yet at what was then known as Ryerson University, he was condemned as being responsible for the Indian residential school system.

Toronto’s other great trump card in the misinformation game is Dundas Street, which was named after Henry Dundas, whose work as a lawyer led to the abolition of slavery in Scotland in 1778. Yet his Toronto detractors — thousands signed a petition against him — make him responsible for delaying the abolition of the slave trade in 1792.

His supposed offence was to get an amendment adopted in the British House of Commons to make abolition gradual. A motion tabled in the previous year, 1791, for immediate abolition failed miserably, 163-88. And, as a statement of opinion, rather than a law, it would have had no effect.

Detractors, however, like to have a culprit to blame, as opposed to the many economic and political circumstances at play, in this case the French Revolutionary Wars, which meant that the Royal Navy had to be on guard against invasion from two pro-slavery countries — France and Spain.

Dundas understood, as other well-meaning advocates for abolition did not, that the slave trade could not be ended by passing a law in one country. Slave owners in the West Indies could simply buy new enslaved people from ships carrying false papers and a false flag — Spain, Portugal and France all continued their slave-trading businesses.

Yet in 2021, Toronto city council adopted a motion to rename Dundas Street, without even holding the public inquiry promised by both council and the mayor.

What to put in the museum? A statue of Sir John A. Macdonald is a must, and the one taken down in Victoria would be ideal. The mayor of Victoria at the time had it removed to prevent it from being vandalized.

A particularly fine statue, it was commissioned by the Sir John A. Macdonald Historical Society and given to the city. The society is now looking for a home for it in Glasgow, Scotland, where Macdonald was born. Toronto should speak up before it’s too late.

The new museum should also display the Ryerson statue, either in its parts (oh the shame) or put together again. For educational purposes, the plaque placed next to it at the university should be displayed at the museum.

It makes the accusation that Ryerson was “instrumental in the design and implementation of the residential school system,” when he had nothing to do with either — rather, he supported the voluntary, bilingual day schools that Indigenous parents and leaders wanted.

The task force that recommended dropping the Ryerson name from the university and permanently removing his statue did so on the basis that he was “associated” with the residential schools. It provided no evidence for such a charge, nor is any available. His lack of responsibility for residential schools was confirmed at a meeting of the university’s senate on Oct. 5, 2021, after the board of governors announced the name change.

It would be important for the museum to set out the sequence of accusations, who made them and any evidence for or against them. It would be highly desirable, as well, for the museum to reveal the university’s concerted efforts to prevent any information getting out about what communications it received for and against the name change.

Otherwise, we have to take it on faith, just as on Chinese interference in Canadian elections, and without even a former governor general to assure us that we can believe what we are told.

Lynn McDonald is a former member of Parliament and a fellow with the Royal Historical Society.