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Instead of renaming buildings, why not truly improve Indigenous lives?

The federal government is renaming the Langevin Block building on Parliament Hill out of respect for Indigenous peoples. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Instead of renaming buildings, why not truly improve Indigenous lives?

I grew up on Maitland Street in London, Ont., named for Peregrine Maitland, lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada in the 1820s – a resolutely conservative leader who opposed democratic reform.

My grandmother had a house on Simcoe Street, named after the first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, who created the clergy reserves, substantial tracts of land assigned exclusively to the Church of England.

These and other officials owed their allegiance and positions to the British Crown, which did not abolish the slave trade in British North America until 1834.

An argument could be made that all streets, institutions or monuments recognizing such officials should be renamed because whatever else they contributed to the development of Canada, they were proponents of elitism, imperialism, racism, militarism and sexism.

Even social justice icons such as J.S. Woodsworth, the first leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) – predecessor of the New Democratic Party – wouldn’t escape such critical scrutiny. He was the author of Strangers Within Our Gates, a 1909 book that demeaned immigrants as well as “the Negro and the Indian.”

Intensely political

Make no mistake: The naming of buildings and memorials is an intensely political process, and there is nothing especially sacred about it.

Such decisions arise from successful lobbying by supporters, or in the case of removing names from buildings and memorials, successful lobbying by opponents of historical individuals, most of whom reflected the times in which they lived.

As a longtime historian and author of The Promise of Schooling: Education in Canada, 1800-1914, I contend that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s renaming of the Langevin Block in Ottawa earlier this year has unwittingly unleashed a political movement that will be difficult to rein in.

Historians have already noted that Hector-Louis Langevin was not personally responsible for creating residential schools. So Trudeau has essentially invited a campaign against the person who was in fact responsible: Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister.

Sir John A. Macdonald is shown in an undated photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/National Archives of Canada

And the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario has taken up this invitation. They want all John A. Macdonald schools in the province to be renamed.

That’s a genie that’s going to be difficult to return to its bottle for the prime minister.

On the one hand, the political motivation behind the campaign is admirable and useful. It heightens awareness and sustains public discussion about Canada’s abominable historical treatment of Indigenous peoples.

On the other hand, it generates enormous practical and moral problems.

Thousands of renamings?

Given the prejudices and questionable actions of historical figures who have been memorialized, literally thousands of renaming exercises will be required, a divisive process that could consume the energies and resources of communities everywhere.

And unless we choose to avoid names altogether and simply number our schools and streets, there is no guarantee, as we have seen, that the reputations of those we do honour will endure untarnished.

More important than any of this is the fact that name-changing alone improves no one’s life in Canada on any significant scale. It’s a symbolic gesture that inspires headlines and rhetoric but ignores the real issues.

In that spirit, let’s pour our time and money into supplying drinkable water to those living on First Nations land and decent, affordable housing to those in cities.

Let’s seriously address Indigenous poverty and unemployment, and improve First Nations’ access to post-secondary education.

Schools and universities should also deepen their students’ knowledge of Indigenous societies, beyond the superficial and symbolic.

Let’s confront inequity in all of our institutions and invest less time in the dubious and exhausting process of renaming them.

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