The Canadian Historical Association wants to rename an annual writing award so it’s no longer associated with the country’s first prime minister.
The association’s elected council wants to change the title of the Sir John A. Macdonald Prize to the CHA Prize for Best Scholarly Book in Canadian History.
The $5,000 award, founded in 1978, recognizes non-fiction writing that’s been deemed to make a significant contribution to the study of Canadian history. It’s awarded annually at an event at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.
“Historians are always mindful and alive to questions of commemoration, and how they reflect our knowledge of the past,” says CHA president Adele Perry.
“These were decisions that were arrived at for a variety of reasons, and I think it’s a good time for us to revisit them.”
The association’s members will be able to vote on the proposal at an annual meeting in May. Perry says the idea was supported by the majority of the council, but that it wasn’t a unanimous decision.
“Historians generally have a lot of opinions,” she says. “I would be surprised if there was unanimity on this one.”
The conversation comes at a time of broad debate about Macdonald’s legacy.
In August, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario also called for Macdonald’s name to be removed from schools in the province. The federation said Macdonald “has been celebrated based on an incomplete version of Canadian history” and that he “played a key role in developing systems that perpetuated genocide against Indigenous people.”
In discussing changing the name of the prize, Perry drew parallels to the federal government’s renaming of the Langevin Block near Parliament Hill. Hector-Louis Langevin was a father of Confederation but also an architect of the residential school system. The building is now called the Office of the Prime Minister and the Privy Council.
“Keeping that name on the Prime Minister’s Office is inconsistent with the values of our government and it’s inconsistent with our vision of a strong partnership with Indigenous Peoples in Canada,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in June.
Perry also pointed to how Montreal announced earlier this year that it was changing the name of a street that commemorated British general Jeffrey Amherst, who supported giving smallpox-laced blankets to Indigenous people in the 1700s.
James Daschuk, a professor at the University of Regina, won the Sir John A. Macdonald Prize in 2014 for his book “Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life.” The book compared contemporary health crises in Indigenous communities and Macdonald’s policy of withholding food from nearly 10,000 Indigenous people until they agreed to move to federally-designated reserves.
When his book condemning Macdonald’s choices won the award, Daschuk “thought it was kind of ironic.”
He considered whether or not to accept the prize, and ultimately decided that he would.
“As a white scholar, I can roll with that,” he says.
“But in this day and age, an Indigenous scholar will win that prize sooner rather than later, and I don’t know a single Indigenous scholar across the country who doesn’t think of Macdonald as the overseer of their marginalization.”
Daschuk acknowledges that Macdonald’s legacy is complicated. But he says ignoring the damage the former prime minister caused to Indigenous communities, including his role in the establishment of residential schools, is to misremember Canadian history.
“He’s certainly the father of our country, the architect of Canada,” he says.
“But he’s also … the architect of the dysfunctional country we live in today, especially with regard to (the government’s relationship to) Indigenous people. There’s a litany of things that undermine his hero status.”
He knows Macdonald also has staunch defenders, people who “are attached emotionally and sentimentally to Macdonald as a heroic figure,” he says.
“And that’s fine. That’s part of history: we can have an informed, respectful debate about these things.”
Perry agrees and says she can’t predict what will happen at the vote in May.
“Historians, at our core level, deal with change over time,” she says.
“Things don’t stay the same, they change. That’s what gives us material to study, and teach, and think about and talk about.”