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Examining Controversial Figures — March 12, 2020

Examining Controversial Figures

By Daniel, Junior Council

All images created by the author


Canada is a very diverse country. The Indigenous peoples of Canada have intricate and unique customs, as do all the other citizens of this nation, some of whom hail from many places across the world. But as we learn more about our nation’s history, it would appear that everything is not quite so rosy as it seems, for there are some very controversial figures that stand out from all the others.


Daniel1Take, for instance, the first Prime Minister of Canada, Sir John Alexander Macdonald. It can be observed that for quite some time he has been idolized for creating Canada, by bureaucrats and workers alike, but the fact remains that he was an outspoken racist and an advocate for residential schools. Despite his controversies about race and his misogynistic outlook on women, even today he has been praised by conservatives and liberals alike for the creation of Canada – his legacy is still contested to this day. Like many debates, both sides to this argument have points which may be considered rational by some, but the fact remains that John A. Macdonald was a flawed leader.


Daniel2Another controversial Canadian would be Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie. He was the first Chief Justice of British Columbia, and was lionized for some time – one historian, J.S. Matthews, wrote: “In actuality, Begbie was one of the kindest judges who ever graced a B.C. court. He hanged men for murder because that was the penalty for murder. But the hangings always took place after a fair trial by 12 jurors.” Nevertheless, Begbie has maintained the dubious distinction of being a “Hanging Judge” – he had five Tsilhqot’in men hanged in the year 1864 for participating in a violent standoff, who would be exonerated by BC Premier Christy Clark 150 years later. Even so, his defenders pointed out how he was against segregationist policies and made many connections with the Indigenous people in the province, so the debate is still an active one. Just a few years ago, a statue of Matthew Begbie was torn down, so that might show how our country has started to look at him under a more critical lens.


Daniel3And interestingly, one of the most exemplified Prime Ministers of Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie King (whose face emblazons the $50 bill) has been subject to criticism as well. Despite his technocratic and modernizing style which revolutionized the national economy, his Liberal administration, the government of Canada during the Second World War, was responsible for a wrongdoing on a grotesque scale: under his leadership the St. Louis, a ship carrying hundreds of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, was turned away from Canada and sent back to the anti-Semitism-stricken continent of Europe (where many would die). His obstinate leadership has also been called into question. Even so, he remains a key figure in Canadian history, and has been ranked very highly amongst the Prime Ministers of Canada.


In summary, some Canadians have been criticised and others condemned for their wrong actions. In the 21st century, we have been realizing what wrong things some people we may have celebrated had perpetrated. In the end, no leader or historical figure is perfect, yet no leader or historical figure is without praise (how rational the support is is determined in proportion to the historical figure). Controversial people are embedded within the pages of history, but it is really up to you to decide whether or not they were right in their actions.