The Legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald: How a Historical Inquiry Project Led to an Understanding of Racial Literacy

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Terri-Lynn Brennan
Tracy Bridgen
Trevor Hill
Matthew Gallupe
Meghan Squarebriggs


The year 2015 saw the City of Kingston, in Ontario, Canada, commemorate what would have been the 200th birthday year of its first Prime Minister, Sir John Alexander Macdonald (hereafter referred to as SJAM). A monumental figure in helping to forge the Canadian nation, SJAM is a figure surrounded by as much praise and controversy as any political figure, both past and present. Although much is said and interpreted as to who SJAM was as a politician and a personal figure, this essay is not about analyzing him or his policies. Rather, this essay looks at how discussions surrounding SJAM are taken up in schools. We argue that SJAM can be used as a racial literacy tool for reading against dominant texts and grappling with personal and institutional implications arising from this critique of dominant texts. In the Canadian context, white privilege is a powerful entry point for engaging students with notions of complicity, accountability and responsibility. We must inform our understanding of the present with a critical trans-historical perspective, challenging popular Canadian misunderstandings of historical racial oppression, such as how we celebrate SJAM for his role in the creation of the transcontinental railway but forget the following: 1) Many Canadians—including government officials—persecuted those who physically built it; and 2) Canada itself is a nation built on the practice of slavery, on one hand, and genocide, on the other. Therefore, with the significance and opportunity of the year 2015, the City of Kingston and the Limestone District School Board opened up an inquiry-based project with 180 students in grades six, seven, and eight regarding their perspectives of SJAM. Responding to their first indepth introduction to SJAM in their history curriculum, the students were asked: “Was Sir John A. Macdonald an Effective Political Leader?” and “Does Kingston Need a New Hero?” Through enriched classroom discussions, exploration of primary and secondary sources and informative academic web conferences, issues of racism, invisible voices, and settler privilege wove a greater and more critical understanding of how racial literacy is imperative in today’s schools and classrooms. 

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Author Biography

Terri-Lynn Brennan, City of Kingston, Cultural Services Department

Program Coordinator for Heritage & First Peoples in the Cultural Development Division of Cultural Services, City of Kingston