Wellington, Stanley, Macdonald

8 07 2010

Municipal politicians in Ottawa are debating whether to rename Wellington Street after Sir John A. Macdonald, the Dominion of Canada’s first Prime Minister. See here. The Duke of Wellington was the British military and political leader who planned the Rideau Canal, which connects Ottawa to Lake Ontario.  The campaign to rename the street has been spearheaded by an amateur historian named Rob Plamondon.

The campaign to rename Wellington Street come after two other recent initiatives to replace British place names in Canada with more distinctly Canadian ones. The name of the Queen Charlotte Islands was recently changed back to its traditional aboriginal name, Haida Gwai. In the last year, there was a campaign to rename Stanley Park in Vancouver, “Xwayxway” which is the name of the aboriginal village that formerly stood on the site of that popular tourist attraction.

Several heritage organizations have joined the debate over Wellington Street. “The president of the Historica-Dominion Institute, Andrew Cohen, is strongly in favour of the change, but says his organization simply supports having the debate. A prominent board member of the institute, Rudyard Griffiths, said he hopes Ottawa quashes what he views as a “whitewash” of history, just as it did on the Stanley Park debate.”

I have a few thoughts about these controversies.

First, what would Macdonald have wanted? Wellington was a hero to conservative Canadians in the 1850s, when Ottawa was designated the capital. Macdonald probably admired the Iron Duke, so I suspect he would have been against the name change.

Second, while I am moderately sympathetic to the campaigns to restore traditional native place names, I think that we would do better to concentrate on  improving measurable health, education, and employment outcomes in First Nations communities.

Third, does changing a street name from “Wellington” (a British general) to “Macdonald” (a British immigrant who remained a proud British subject until his death), really advance the agenda of Canadianization? Macdonald, like Wellington and Stanley, is a British Isles name. If the federal government wanted to follow up its recent apology to the First Nations for the residential school program with a symbolic name change, they would give aboriginal names to streets in the capital rather than the name of one of the authors of the residential school program.

Fourth, why is the proposal to rename Wellington Street being made now?  That’s a mystery to me. The bicentennial of Macdonald’s birth is still 5 years away. Are people already looking ahead to it? Do some people feel nostalgia for the Centennial Era, when many things were renamed after Macdonald? In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a sustained campaign by Liberal governments to remove the symbols of Britishness in Canada. In 1965, the Red Ensign was replaced with a distinctly Canadian flag. The words “Royal Mail” and the royal coat of arms were dropped from mail boxes, although the mailboxes remained red. There was also discussion within the federal government of abolishing the monarchy, although it was decided that doing so would be more trouble than it is worth. The name Wellington Street survived that craze to get rid of references to colonialism. Today, the federal government has very little interest in such symbolic politics. Both the Tories and the Grits have made it clear that they think that a long debate on getting rid of the monarchy would be a waste of time.

Fifth, is it really a good idea to name things after dead Prime Ministers? Won’t this feed the egos of present and future Prime Ministers and contribute to the presidentialization of our politics? In the United States, it has long been customary to name things such as airports and dams after Presidents. Travel around London and you will see very streets or buildings named after former British Prime Ministers. Monarchs and their family members have many things such as the Royal Albert Hall named after them, but former Prime Ministers do not.  One of the nice things about a Westminster-style system is that the head of the government is less likely to acquire the inflated ego for which heads of state are known.

A Prime Minister is simply first among equals in his cabinet and in terms of ceremonial precedence ranks below the Governor-General. In the past, Canadian Prime Ministers were known for being modest and unassuming. Macdonald and Laurier walked to work carrying briefcases. The Governor-General had an official residence and a carriage, but not the Prime Minister. Until the 1950s, Canada did not have an official residence for its Prime Minister– the purchase of 24 Sussex Drive as an official residence for Louis St-Laurent was a major step towards the presidentialization of our politics. The Liberals made Laurier’s house in Ottawa a sort of shrine to liberalism and renamed the nearest street after him. The postwar period also saw the introduction of the American practice of naming things after dead Prime Minister– Lake Diefenbaker, Pearson Airport, and, more recently, Trudeau Airport. This practice would have been unthinkable in the lifetimes of Macdonald and Laurier.  Even then, our Prime Ministers were still far more modest than American Presidents. Diefenbaker lived in a modest bungalow when he became Prime Minister. Pierre Trudeau would walk with his sons to a shawarma restaurant in the Sandy Hill area of restaurant accompanied by only a single unarmed security man.

More recent Prime Ministers have aped American practice by riding around in expensive motorcades, sealed off from ordinary citizens. Even Jean Chretien, who depicted himself as a regular guy, travelled in a motorcade, albeit in a bullet-proof Chevrolet. Under the current Prime Minister, this tendency towards Americanization has gone even further. I am told that Stephen Harper was extremely upset when he found out it was not customary for military personnel to salute the Prime Minister. He has effected a change in protocol so that he is now saluted.  My own preference would be to abolish the official residence, cut the salary of the Prime Minister to the average male wage, and give the guy a bus pass. I suspect that this reform would result in better public transit for starters. Allowing Prime Ministers to develop too great an impression of their own importance is dangerous.

Sixth, does renaming streets after historic figures really promote the rigorous study of history? I am of two minds on this subject. I teach a course on the Life and Times of Macdonald, so I might welcome attention being paid to him in this way. However, naming a street after a historical figure implies that they are a hero, someone to be praised. The reality is that Macdonald’s legacy was very mixed, at best. Heritage and history are not the same thing. Buying Robin Hood flour or going to see a Hollywood film about Robin Hood is heritage. Reading a serious book on peasant life in the Middle Ages is history.



3 responses

8 07 2010

I was contacted by the organizers of the Macdonald-Cartier institute, which seems to be leading the charge /against/ the name change. They pointed out that there already is a Macdonald Street in downtown Ottawa (and a Cartier Street, for that matter) right in the hub of the Golden Triangle, between Elgin and the Rideau Canal.

Personally, I think Ottawa should take a page from Montreal’s aggressive street-renaming policy and dub the street Barack Obama Blvd. 😉

9 07 2010
Roderick Benns

Dear Professor Smith,

I was disappointed to read your opinion about how wrong it is for Canadian prime ministers to be considered heroes.

As owner of Fireside Publishing House, which is committed to the Leaders & Legacies series on Canada’s prime ministers and other Canadian leaders, we are of a decidedly different mindset.

According to Oxford, a hero is “a person distinguished by courage, noble deeds, outstanding achievements, etc.”

John A. Macdonald and Wilfrid Laurier were not heroes under this definition? It boggles the mind that anyone could say otherwise. (You will notice the definition does not cite infallibility, for Macdonald and Laurier, like the lot of us, would surely falter.)

These comments are among the worst kind of tall poppy syndrome comments I have read in some time. To think that talent or achievement might distinguish one person from another!

You write “my own preference would be to abolish the official residence, cut the salary of the Prime Minister to the average male wage, and give the guy a bus pass.”

What would this teach our young people? That political public service is not really valued? That we, as Canadians, need not have any faith or respect for our own institutions? This truly is disrespectful.

You also write, “…naming a street after a historical figure implies that they are a hero, someone to be praised.”

Yes, we would not want any praise for our leaders, please — we’re Canadian! Why should Macdonald be recognized for “courage, noble deeds or outstanding achievements” like, say, facilitating the birth of a nation or manifesting the longest continental railroad in the world, among a dozen other key planks.

Do the Americans take it too far? From our standpoint, of course they do. But it’s in their blood and it’s their country. If a U.S. president stopped to take a pee somewhere you can find a plaque about it. And good for them.

Our prime ministers (and other types of leaders) are people who provide living evidence of personal sacrifice, service to country, and, yes, ambition. From my standpoint, I want children to know this is possible for them. I want them to know that serving one’s country will not invite ridicule or disdain but rather respect and appreciation, assuming their intent is in the best interests of their fellow Canadians.

I don’t want to live in a country where we have ‘EveryMan Avenue.’ Give me Macdonald Blvd – or even Wellington – any day of the week.

Roderick Benns

9 07 2010

Having lived in Ottawa from 2000 to 2009, I admit to being a profound cynic when it comes to anything relating to what city council is doing.

I can’t help but think that the hullabaloo over a street name is indicative of a colossally dysfunctional city council that would rather make this the city’s biggest problem than, in the months before the municipal elections, remind the public of their miserable record of a two-month transit strike, the light rail fiasco, the Lansdowne park nonsense, and the annual attempts to close schools and libraries and cut social and cultural funding (all of which contribute more to Canada than another honour for John A.).

Anyway, I think the post is well-argued. We don’t need a change for the reasons stated. And there’s already plenty of Macdonald in downtown Ottawa, from a street, to a statue on Parliament Hill, to, perhaps most importantly, a decent pub on Elgin.

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