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Patrice Dutil: Parks Canada chooses identity politics over giving Sir John A. Macdonald his due


Parks Canada launched its new characterization of Sir John A. Macdonald over the Victoria Day long weekend when it reopened Bellevue House in Kingston, Ontario after six long years of restoration. The spectacle, steeped in identity politics, has rightly been criticized for portraying our founding prime minister as among Canada’s worst-ever villains. 

For fans of Canadian architecture and home design and for friends of history, this was an important event. Bellevue House is a gem in the Canadian urban landscape. It was built in 1840 for a prosperous Kingston merchant in an improbable Italian Villa style that features a square central tower and two wings deployed on either side. Think of it as a proud Canada goose standing and opening its wings, inviting visitors inside. It is as welcoming today as it was when I first visited it as part of a school field trip in grade 7, well over 50 years ago.

Macdonald rented the place for about a year in 1848-1849. Back in those days, it was located in the suburbs of Kingston and he had picked it as a place of rest for his wife Isabella who had given birth to their first child John Jr. It was a big house—far too big for a small family—and it was expensive. Sadly, it turned out to be the place of terrible tragedy for the young couple, as their son died there before he was barely a year old. 

In Macdonald’s long and impressive life, Bellevue House is nothing but an asterisk. His stay was short, no big decisions were hatched there, he never owned it, and he did not even write about it. Two other places in Canada are far more important: the Macdonald-Mowat House on St. George Street in Toronto, which has been beautifully restored by the University of Toronto, and Earnscliffe, Macdonald’s grand home overlooking the Ottawa River in Ottawa, which has long been owned by the British government (it serves as the private residence of the British High Commissioner). 

Ottawa bought Bellevue House in 1964 in preparation for Canada’s Centennial. It was opened as a historic park three years later. Because of its association with Canada’s first prime minister, a connection between exquisite architecture and politics was cemented. 

The Trudeau government had choices to make when it closed the house for long-overdue repairs in 2017 (it had suffered neglect and its visiting hours had been reduced by the Harper government). It could have sold it for redevelopment. It could have negotiated an arrangement with Kingston so as to offer much-needed museum space to a beautiful city that has done everything to show it no longer wants any association with its most famous resident.

It could have approached nearby Queen’s University to make the place useful all year round to students (instead it will be mothballed for eight months each year). It could have made it a museum dedicated to Indigenous Peoples or to Canada’s multiculturalism. Why not a museum dedicated to Canada’s workers? Instead, it decided to keep Bellevue House fixated on Macdonald. The website for the national historical site now opens with telling lines. From the second word, the link is made between Macdonald and the First Nations: 

Hello, Shé:kon, Aaniin. At Bellevue House National Historic Site, many voices present the complex legacy of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. Come for the experience, engage with the stories, and join the conversation about Canadian history.

It continues:

Don’t miss this opportunity to experience the history of Sir John A. Macdonald in the 1840’s setting, while engaging in conversations about the complex and lasting legacies of Canada’s first prime minister.

There is no hint of official bilingualism. Nothing about nation-building, about the achievement of institutionalizing Confederation, or about the hardships of politically uniting a difficult country. Not a word about the economic difficulties that marked Macdonald’s time, or about the massive emigration from Canada in those years. Nothing about the hardships of women in the 19th century, or about the children who were lucky to survive past age 10 and who were typically sent to work from that point onwards. 

Instead, the re-opening of the historic Bellevue House provides yet another embarrassing display of national flagellation, triggered by the adoption of the Trudeau government’s Framework for History and Commemoration (2019), a short-sighted guideline not designed to enlighten but instead to demonize Canada’s past and those who (mostly volunteered) to preserve it. 

The statue of Sir John A. Macdonald is shown torn down following a demonstration in Montreal, Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press.

The opening ceremonies were clear: the mission of the reborn national site is not to celebrate Kingston’s most important (by far) citizen, a man who led a national party to six electoral majorities and who was joyously celebrated in his own lifetime even by his adversaries, but to trot out the usual tropes: he was a racist, a drunk, a man who hated Indigenous peoples to the point of starving them or forcing them to go to school. A man who probably did not like women or immigrants either. Couched in terms of a “timely conversation” the Parks Canada staff’s apparently closed-door consultations with local Indigenous groups recrafted the focus to be Macdonald-Bellevue. 

Not surprisingly, there is a display about residential schools. Academic Channon Oyeniran gave introductory remarks at the reopening ceremony and talked about how the event was a “testament” to the “rewriting of this history.” She was being honest. No known historian of Macdonald, Kingston, or Victorian Upper Canada was even invited.

Dan Maracle, the chief of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, was quoted as saying that Bellevue “Now does a better job of encompassing all of Macdonald’s legacy,” urging Canadians “to learn more about the country’s Indigenous Peoples and their culture.” He continued: “If you learn about the history of the country, then that might actually create a desire to do better in the future.” One has to ask: what would Chief Maracle do without Macdonald the villain?

The reality is that Bellevue House is a fake, as it has always been. Its architecture was borrowed from a place far away and its association with John and Isabella Macdonald was tenuous at best. There are no Macdonald artifacts on display (except, maybe, a crib) because the family was house-poor and had little in the way of furniture—Macdonald was 34 years old, barely earning a living as a lawyer, with no money to buy the expensive items that are now on display and presented as totems of privilege. 

To add insult to injury, Bellevue House will now be used to heave all the ills of the Victorian era on Macdonald’s shoulders. Ignoring the fact that he was the product of democracy, today the government of Canada, which he helped create, continues to ransack the history of the country and goes out of its way to ensure Macdonald gets a kicking. 

The debacle at Bellevue House shows just how Prime Minister Trudeau continues to lead the march of the historical boodle brigade. His first step was to jettison Sir Hector Langevin, Macdonald’s favourite minister (a stalwart Quebec federalist who was as loyal and he was hard-working as minister of public works). The prime minister then did nothing to denounce the vandalism of Macdonald statues on his watch. Instead, he continuously disparages the politics and policies of his predecessors (Liberals included). 

Among his final gestures will be this fiasco at Bellevue House. For this government cannot miss an opportunity, however small, to kneecap its first prime minister’s reputation. On the other hand, there will be plenty of opportunities to boycott Bellevue House.

Patrick Luciani: Utopian ideas always sound nice. But never underestimate the ugliness of human nature


In the latest Hub book review, Patrick Luciani examines Free and Equal: A Manifesto for a Just Society (Knopf, 2023, 2024) by Daniel Chandler, which puts forth how the ideas of John Rawls can be implemented in our times for progressive political ends.

After the Second World War, countries in Northern Europe, the U.K., Canada, and the U.S. moved closer to what we know as democratic welfare states. Not all at the same pace, but there was a general belief that governments had an obligation to help the poor with programs that supported education and health, along with pensions when they retired. That momentum grew stronger over the years. 

With the spread of more programs, resistance came from those forced to pay for these programs with higher taxes, and they had a point. Classical political thinkers John Locke and American James Madison provided some justification for a small but limited government to protect property rights. Even Karl Marx provided a philosophical top-down justification for communism and the control of all capital and resources. But there wasn’t a philosophy justifying or underpinning a welfare state. 

In a transformative moment in 1971, Harvard philosopher John Rawls published A Theory of Justice, a work that would revolutionize political philosophy. Rawls’ argument was a profound endeavour to reconcile the seemingly conflicting ideals of freedom and equality in a pluralistic society, a departure from the conventional political theories. Rawls’ book would cement his status as the most significant political theorist of the past century. Five decades after its publication, it still dominates contemporary political thought and debate. 

Daniel Chandler’s book Free and Equal explains how Rawls’s thinking can still create “a more humane, equal, and sustainable society for our times” and a realistic utopia if only we had the courage to follow his lead. 

Rawls defended a greater role for the state through a thought experiment following the tradition of Thomas Hobbes and Jean Jacque Rousseau’s social contract theories. He proposed we start from an original position where “we” as a society gather to design a system of government behind what he called a “veil of ignorance.” Behind this veil, we have no memory of our race, religion, family history, status in society, or whether we are rich or poor. We don’t even know our genders, ambitions, or intellectual capacities. Our amnesia is complete behind this veil. 

Under these conditions, what kind of society would we choose to live in? Rawls concludes we would rationally select a system that guarantees the highest level of political rights to pursue our goals in a free society and, second, what Rawls called the “difference principle” that inequalities in society are allowed if they benefit everyone. This system assures a level of income distribution that would secure a good life for all, especially for the least advantaged. We would choose that system because it serves our self-interest. 

Rawls further justifies sharing wealth and income because much of life is a matter of chance; no one truly deserves their intellectual or creative talents because they are distributed by nature randomly. Even the talent for hard work is an accident of chance. It is only fair that the neurosurgeon, brilliant enough to get into medical school and earn a million dollars a year, should share some of that income with the janitor earning $30,000 who never finished high school. Income should be shared so we all have the best chances to reach our human potential, starting with access to good schools and an income to round out the rough edges of life. 

Rawls isn’t an easy read. His arduous style requires a hard-backed chair to keep the reader’s attention. (Neither was he an easy listen, a fact I learned personally when attending some of his lectures in my own university days.) Chandler humanizes Rawls’ work by clearly explaining his ideas to the average reader while defending a democratic form of liberalism against what he believes is a dominant neoliberalism that puts markets ahead of compassion. Chandler spends most of his book arguing for progressive government programs—caused by the widening gap between rich and poor—including higher minimum wages, stronger unions, and a guaranteed annual income while abolishing all private education and riding elections of private money. 

Professor Rawls’s A Theory of Justice has agitated critics on both sides of the political spectrum over the 50 years since its publication. The extreme Left has attacked Rawls for defending private ownership even though society would be left poorer but better off under a system of greater equality. On the Right, any form of taxation is unjust if wealth is earned legally without coercion, as Robert Nozick argues in Anarchy, State and Utopia in his response to Rawls’s defence of the welfare state. Moral philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt argues that eradicating inequality is a false goal when our attention should be on diminishing poverty—two very different things.

Chandler’s book is subtitled “A Manifesto for a Just Society” in the spirit of Marx’s phrase “From each according to his ability, to each according to need.” If you raise the cost of those with ability and lower the cost of those with need, don’t be surprised if you get less of the first and more of the second.  

Aside from underplaying the damage caused by identity politics and alienating many of the poor Rawls wants to help, Chandler’s greatest weakness is his underestimation of human nature. It may be true that those who enjoy the benefits of their gifts are the lucky ones, but many find it difficult to believe that all good fortune is undeserved or that effort plays no part in life’s success. Pushing that conclusion too hard will always get a strong reaction when most people see that determination and free will dominate how we lead our lives and the following benefits or costs. Diminishing earned accomplishments won’t bring us closer to a Rawlsian world searching for a “realistic utopia.” It will end up giving us the opposite.