Sir John A. Macdonald Station: Let The Debate Begin

By Steve Paikin - Published on Feb 06, 2014
One Toronto City Councillor has suggested renaming the refurbished Union Station after our first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.

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A new bust of Sir John A. Macdonald looks at former Prime Minister John Turner.  Both PMs were born outside Canada.

A confluence of two significant events has got Ontario's capital city hip deep in the middle of a historical controversy.  Good, I say. 

On one hand, the city's historic Union Station is being refurbished to the tune of $795 million, making it an even more valuable transportation hub than it's been for more than a century. 

On the other hand, next January, we'll experience the bicentennial of the birth of arguably the most significant politician in Canadian history. 

As a result, Toronto City Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong thought it would be a neat idea to rename Union Station after Sir John A. Macdonald. So he managed to get the city's executive committee to pass a motion, asking the city to investigate the possibility. The full council won't render a decision on it for many months yet. 

For history nerds like me, the story is heaven-sent. There's nothing like a good old fashioned controversy to get people engaging about their history.

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Why rename the station after Sir John? Several reasons: 

  •  First, as the first prime minister's biographer Richard Gwyn points out, "No Macdonald, No Canada." Sir John was the indispensable figure who managed to broker all the cleavages of the day, and negotiate our independence from Britain without a shot being fired. And yet, there's virtually nothing in this city that anyone knows of that recognizes Macdonald's achievement. 

Yes, the sixteen-lane highway running through the city is technically called the "Macdonald-Cartier Freeway," but no one calls it that. It's the 401. 

Sir John lived here, in downtown Toronto.

True, Kingston has first claim on Macdonald, given that he was a city councillor and MP there. But he did live in Toronto for several years as well. In fact, the house he lived in is on St. George St. on the downtown campus of the University of Toronto. It's a beautiful home, totally underutilized by the U of T.  As usual in Canada, when it comes to places of historic significance, we could do so much more but don't. 

  • Second, Macdonald's vision got this country's first railway built.  He saw a Canada united from coast to coast by the railway. So the notion of naming the country's most significant railway station after him doesn't seem far-fetched at all. 
  • Third, Union Station has been an entry point to Toronto for thousands upon thousands of immigrants over the years. What a strong and permanent reminder that our first prime minister himself was an immigrant (from Scotland). It's one of the wondrous differences between Canada and the United States.  Down there, you've got to be born in America to become president.  Here, anyone can aspire to be the head of the government,. Frequently we've had non-native born Canadians hold the job. 
  • Fourth, there are two dozen "Union Stations" across North America.  There's nothing particularly distinctive about the name. In fact, our Union Station was so named to indicate the "union" of two railway companies that agreed to jointly use the station --- hardly as noteworthy an accomplishment as the creation of the entire country itself. 

Sir John would be rolling in his grave if he heard some of what people are saying about him today....

What's the argument against the re-naming? From what I've been able to glean from Twitter and other social media, it's this: 

  • Macdonald was a drunk.
  • Macdonald was a racist.
  • Macdonald hanged Louis Riel.
  • Macdonald took a secret payment from the owner of the CPR to move the railway along.
  • Union Station is a perfectly good name and we should never rename public institutions. 

...then again, maybe not. They said a lot of bad things about him back in the day. 

Let's look at those arguments. 

Yes, Macdonald was a drunk.  And somehow, despite repeated efforts to drown the sorrows of his sad personal life in the bottle, he managed to create a new country.  Macdonald drunk seems to have been more effective than most others sober.  Interestingly enough, we're hearing a lot these days in Toronto about how what a politician does in his personal life is of nobody's concern but his own. Okay then. 

Yes, by the standards of a much more enlightened 2014, Macdonald was a racist. He used the expression "Chinamen" when describing what we'd politely today call "Asians." But to judge Sir John in 1867 by the standards of 2014 is ridiculous. Richard Gwyn, whose two-volume biography of Sir John is the best thing written yet about the man, says: "His provision for native people to gain the franchise while retaining their special rights under the treaties and Indian Act [meaning they both could vote and were exempt from paying taxes] was unequalled in any other reform in his day, and on up to 1960 when, it having been abolished by Laurier, was restored by Diefenbaker."

Gwyn continues: "He was the first leader to attract to Canada immigrants from anywhere other than the British Isles, namely Jews, Hungarians, Icelanders, and also Mennonites."

But what about that odious head tax he imposed on Chinese immigrants who built the railroad? Gwyn says, "His imposition of a head tax on Chinese temporary workers (not Immigrants, as is always said) was discriminatory, but he was almost universally criticized for doing so in so moderate fashion, not excluding the Chinese, as the U.S. had just done, and imposing a tax of only $50 that it ceased to deter newcomers after a few years so that Laurier increased the tax ten-fold."

This is about the only thing in Ontario's capital city that pays tribute to our first prime minister: a statue on the south lawn at Queen's Park.

Let's also point out something obvious. The city councillor who is advancing this idea, Denzil Minnan-Wong, is the son of a Chinese immigrant. And MP Olivia Chow, who was born in Hong Kong, attended a 199th birthday celebration for Macdonald at Hart House about a month ago. It seems highly unlikely that two prominent Toronto politicians of Chinese ancestry would associate themselves with a greater interest and understanding of Macdonald's legacy if they thought he was an unsalvageable racist.  

Let's add this: Macdonald was the first politician of his day to speak in Parliament in favor of giving the vote to women.  That was a surprisingly progressive position to take more than a century ago. 

Macdonald took a "bribe"?  Well, yes he did. Is it worth noting he didn't keep a dime of the money for himself, but rather, put it all into the Conservative Party coffers? If so, duly noted. 

As for never renaming public institutions, this is the flimsiest argument of all.  Just ask the people who work at Toronto Pearson International Airport (founded in 1937, renamed in 1984), Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport (founded in the 1940s, renamed in 2004), John C. Munro Hamilton International Airport (founded in the 1940s, renamed in 1998), not to mention the millions who drive on the "Highway of Heroes" every year (first opened in 1947, renamed in 2007).

For goodness sakes, people, Toronto itself was renamed, having been established in 1793 as "York," then renamed and incorporated as "Toronto" in 1834. We never rename important institutions? Poppycock. 

Let's give Richard Gwyn the last word on this: "If anyone thinks we'd be better off had there been no Macdonald, then it's time long overdue for them to actually read some Canadian history."

You know what Richard? The attempt to rename Union Station after Sir John might just do that. Let's learn more about our first prime minister's legacy, warts and all.  

In which case, to paraphrase Shakespeare, this fight over what's in a name is all to the good. 

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