Retirees' Association

Retirees Association of Queen's

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Update from Dean Walters regarding the name of the law school building

Statement about the name of the law school building at Queen’s University

Dear members of the law school community,

I am writing to you about today’s decision of the Queen’s University Board of Trustees that the name “Sir John A. Macdonald” will be removed from the law school building. I appreciate that this decision will be very troubling, and even incomprehensible, for some of you. However, I hope you will take the time to read about the reasons why the Board of Trustees decided that it is in the best interests of the University and its Faculty of Law to de-name the building.

In its meeting today, the Board of Trustees accepted a recommendation made by University Principal and Vice Chancellor Patrick Deane. Principal Deane, in turn, accepted recommendations made by me and by an Advisory Committee on the Building Name that conducted consultations on this question. I will try to summarize the main reasons for these recommendations in this letter. However, if you are interested in understanding the issues fully, I would encourage you to read the detailed reports upon which the Board of Trustees relied.

Let me begin by saying that the task of addressing the building name has not been easy for anyone involved. If you read the detailed reports, you will see that the Queen’s community is deeply divided over the Macdonald Hall question. Over 3,000 people participated in the consultation process, and they were roughly equally divided on the question. I received many eloquent and thoughtful submissions from law school graduates, including graduates from the earliest years of the law school. I wish to express my sincere gratitude to you all for the time and care that you took in preparing your submissions.

In my first year as Dean of Law, I have confronted many unexpected challenges, including a global pandemic. I will concede, however, that it came as no surprise to me when the issue of the law school building name emerged as a point of controversy. Even so, there was little that I could have done to prepare myself for this challenge. I believe that the question of the name of Macdonald Hall is one about which reasonable people can disagree. Indeed, my own opinions have evolved over the course of the last few months. In reading and hearing from you, I sensed a common concern about the wellbeing of the University and the law school, no matter your opinions on the building name. I have spent some sleepless nights trying to think of ways of bringing all of us together with a satisfactory answer. But I am sorry to say that this solution has eluded me.

In the end, I was persuaded by the Advisory Committee on the Building Name, and by members of the law school community expressed in a Law Faculty Board resolution, that it would be best for the Faculty of Law and the University if the Macdonald name were removed. I came to this conclusion aware of the deep disappointment that this would cause many members of our alumni community. It is really for you that I am writing today.

I don’t need to tell you that Sir John A. Macdonald was the principal founder of the country we live in. He was responsible, together with a small number of others, for bringing French and English Canada together into a constitutional arrangement committed to unity and diversity as well as justice, democracy, and legality. This project of Canada was and remains a noble one. Indeed, it is a constitutional project that is, in many respects, the envy of the world. It is a constitution that Canadians have struggled to honour and to protect ever since. We are all indebted to Macdonald for this remarkable achievement.

But the project of Canada was and remains a project – an ideal of principle and value that was not fully embraced on the ground then, and is not fully embraced on the ground even now. It is in this crack between ideal and reality that questions about the complicated figure of Macdonald emerge, and quite legitimately so.

Although Macdonald is rightly celebrated for his accomplishments as one of Canada’s principal founders, a more complete understanding of his legacies has emerged in recent years. In particular, we now have a better understanding of the views and policies he and his government advanced in relation to Indigenous peoples and racial minorities, and the hurt and harms which these policies caused, both at that time and later.

As prime minister and superintendent general of Indian affairs (offices he held simultaneously), Macdonald initiated the federal Indian residential school policy. In his own words, Indian children had to be separated from the “savages” and taught to think and live like “white men”. The tragic legacy of residential schools, documented by the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, is one that Indigenous peoples and communities continue to struggle with every single day.

Macdonald also advanced what are now seen to be inarguably offensive views of racial minorities. In arguing against extending the right to vote to Asians, Macdonald warned his fellow parliamentarians of “Chinese eccentricities, Chinese immorality, [and] Asiatic principles…which are abhorrent to the Aryan race and Aryan principles”, and he argued that the “Aryan races will not wholesomely amalgamate with the Africans or the Asiatics” and that if such interracial relationships did occur the “mongrel race” resulting would destroy “the Aryan character of the future of British America”.

How do we deal with these parts of Macdonald’s legacy?

One of the many compelling written submissions I received was from Rob Nelson and Neil McCrank, who graduated from Queen’s Law just over 50 years ago, in 1969. Their analysis is compelling precisely because it starts by acknowledging the “pain and suffering” caused by the residential school system, and by acknowledging that they, as non-Indigenous people, cannot “fully appreciate and digest” the significance of the pain and suffering caused by this policy for Indigenous peoples. Their analysis thus embraces the tone and spirit of empathy that lies at the heart of the term ‘reconciliation’ that we now invoke. Mr. Nelson and Mr. McCrank chart the steps towards reconciliation advanced by the Government of Canada, including the settlement agreement reached in 2006 in which, in order to end class-action litigation, Canada admitted responsiblilty for the harm and abuse suffered by Indigenous children at residential schools. They conclude with a plea that the remarkable but incomplete achievements of Macdonald not be obliterated in our rush to accommodate the valid claims of Indigenous peoples. They ask that the name on the building remain.

This is the kind of reasoning that, as I mentioned above, has kept me awake at night. It keeps me awake, in part, because I have also met with and heard from Indigenous law students at Queen’s, who start from the same premise but reach different conclusions. It may be difficult for some of our alumni to understand the ongoing hurt caused to these students by the name of the building in which they study, which to them is a daily reminder of events in which their culture, their people, and in many cases their immediate families were grievously harmed. In a letter submitted to me by the Indigenous Law Students’ Alliance, a student is quoted as stating: “We cannot invite Indigenous students into our school and expect them to feel welcome while the building they are being welcomed into is named after a man who worked for years to destroy their communities and heritage.” In 1960, when the building was named after Macdonald, the name sent a simple and uncontroversial message about the law school community in the building. Now, the name sends a conflicting message that interferes with the values and aspirations of that community. Indigenous and racialized students receive from the name a message that they are not welcome and included. Those who join us, despite the name, may never feel like members of the community.  In other cases, students may choose not to join the faculty, and their exclusion does harm not only to us, but to the public interest of the country which they as our graduates would serve.

To remove the Macdonald name from the building is not to condemn Macdonald’s character or to dismiss his contributions to Canada. The decision is not premised upon a judgment that Macdonald was a morally bad person. As many of those who contributed to the consultation pointed out vehemently, we cannot always judge historical characters by the moral standards of today. However, the actions and statements of Macdonald have an impact on people today that cannot be ignored as we consider our duties as a University and a law school. In the end, the decision by the University is made on the basis of the character, values, aspirations, and wellbeing of the people working and learning in the law school building, and those whom we plan to welcome to the building in the future. This decision is about how the University wishes to advance reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. It is part of broader efforts to ensure that the University honours the values of equity, diversity, and inclusivity. In the end, the decision about the Macdonald name is more about us than him.

Macdonald’s constitutional achievements, the partnership between distinctive French and English peoples with a framework of justice and legality, is one that must be central to legal education in all Canadian law schools. Macdonald’s constitutional settlement was a remarkable and noble achievement that generations of Canadians have struggled to honour and preserve. We are the beneficiaries of the insights of Macdonald and his allies – not just for what they wanted to accomplish, but for setting up a framework that would permit the peaceful and rational resolution of injustices arising from the limits of their own moral horizons.

Macdonald’s constitution embraced, at its heart, a spirit of co-existence between distinct peoples, between French and English peoples. However, it is also one that, if it is to be coherent and true to its own ideals, should honour the principle of reconciliation with other national groupings that Macdonald dismissed or denied, and I mean here, of course, Indigenous nations. Removing Macdonald’s name from the law school building may be seen as one small way of honouring the underlying values that animate the constitution that Macdonald helped to frame.

One may believe that Macdonald’s role in initiating the noble project of Canada should be honoured, and still conclude that his name should be removed from our building. Indeed, my own view is that we have taken the step to de-name the building because of, not despite, Macdonald’s constitutional achievements. We want to make whole the constitutional promise of a just accommodation between distinct peoples that Macdonald had the vision to imagine. The Macdonald building name is an impediment to our efforts to help make that vision complete. A decision has been made that the Macdonald name should, in the interests of reconciliation between peoples, be retired from the law school building at Queen’s. We mean no disrespect by this decision to Macdonald’s achievements, or to the many members of our community who would have preferred to retain the name. However, we trust that most of you who are disappointed with the decision will continue to support the goals of our law school, which are to create a welcoming, inclusive community where we can work together to educate the next generations of lawyers dedicated to the public interest of Canada.

Yours sincerely,

Mark D. Walters
Dean of Law




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