We the people are right when we reject re-naming Toronto’s railway station after John A. Macdonald ..

Feb 6th, 2014 | By | Category: In Brief

Denzil Minnan-Wong, in the hood (which in his real case is in the “old suburbs” of what used to be called Don Mills, or thereabouts).

As trained as we are to be cold and calculating in the big city, sometimes it is almost impossible not to be pleased by something in the news.

My pleasure over the past few days has been (what I at least take to be) the broad public reaction to Toronto City Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong’s proposal to change the name of the city’s downtown railway station from Union Station (admittedly a name used in many other North American places) to the Sir John A. Macdonald Station.

The particular Macdonald referred to (there are others in Canadian history, of course) was the first prime minister of the Canadian confederation of 1867 (once known as the Dominion of Canada). According to Councillor Minnan-Wong: “He is our George Washington …  I don’t believe there is any more significant leader than the guy who brought our country together and built our railway from coast to coast.”

Toronto Union Station on Front Street, showing why the current renovation is important, Septermber 2008.

As it happens, the city executive committee has now “agreed to study the idea, with a report coming back in July.” Already, however, there are signs that the wider public does not approve. On the Toronto Life website 85% of respondents answered “No” to the question “Should Union Station be renamed in honour of John A. Macdonald?”  In a similar Toronto Star poll, “more than 90 per cent” voted “to leave the station’s name untouched.”

Poster for the 1891 Canadian federal election — Macdonald’s last.

I take some measured pleasure in all this. I have long thought that John A. Macdonald does not even want to live up to the kind of Canadian founding father stature some politicians and others still want to assign him. About three years ago I even posted a piece on this site called “Why John A. Macdonald can never be Canada’s George Washington.”

It somehow turned out too long. But it at least offers an exhaustive as well as an exhausting argument, about how some Canadian politicians and others are not telling the whole story, when they tell us we should see Macdonald as “our George Washington.”

I am also now told by the resident Google Analytics analyst here that my piece from three years ago (January 17, 2011, to be exact) has lately been getting some fresh attention on the world wide web. Well … I suppose that’s unseemly boasting, as well as a bit of an exaggeration. (There have been more visitors to the page.) But we live in Rob Ford’s Crazy Town now. Almost anything goes — except renaming Union Station after John A. Macdonald.

“Midnight Log Cabin” by Calgary Photographer Robert Mueller.

It is finally not so much what’s wrong with John A. Macdonald. It is not as if anyone else would play the role better. It is just part of what Canadian history is about that there is no such thing as a George Washington in Canadian history. For better or worse, today there is only we the Canadian people. Or what Pierre Trudeau in the late 1960s called “the struggle of nameless Canadians to improve their lives in our often hostile environment.” And that is what keeps us up at night worrying, in a northern land that, as someone’s wayward aunt once said, looks lovely in the moonlight.

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