I do believe that it’s worthwhile to remember and commemorate our past. I believe in this strongly enough that this has led me to take the unpopular position regarding the proposal to erect statues to Canada’s prime ministers in Kitchener’s Victoria Park.
As an aside, I was not responsible for writing the headline of that column. That was a way stronger statement than I’d intended.
But I believe there are good ways and bad ways to commemorate important people from our past. For instance, there was Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horvath’s idea of naming one of the proposed new stations on the Bloor-Danforth extension after Nelson Mandela. Though her heart was in its right place, it was still a bad idea, in my opinion.
Toronto councillor and mayoral hopeful Denzil Minnan-Wong’s heart is also in the right place, in my opinion, but his proposal to rename Toronto’s Union station after Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, is even worse.
Why? Let us count the ways.
One, Union station is just too great of a landmark to change. It’s a key station on Toronto’s subway network, it’s the transportation hub that literally tens of thousands of commuters use to get to and from home and work each day. It has named the neighbourhood around it, and it has over a hundred and fifty years of history behind it. (Toronto’s first Union Station opened to the public in around the same area in 1858). Renaming Union would be harder than renaming the Skydome. Sure, there’s a contractual obligation for sportscasters to call the Blue Jays’ home “the Rogers Centre”, but most everybody remembers the original name and finds the new name an interloper. And that’s a single public building with just 25 years of history behind it.
A lot of people are going to raise objections to Sir John A. Macdonald’s suitability to be commemorated, and I’ll leave concerns about his failings for them to describe. I will admit that it makes sense to rename a train station after the prime minister under whose watch Canada’s transcontinental railroad was built, but that suitability pales in comparison to the objections I have in the paragraph above.
The third reason was illustrated on Twitter, and it’s a key one. Here in Waterloo Region, we’ve named one of our newest high schools after Canada’s first prime minister. Most students don’t call the school by its full name, however. In this day and age of acronyms, students don’t attend Sir. John A. Macdonald Secondary School. They attend “Sir JAM”.
So, Denzil Minnan-Wong proposes to rename Union Station “Sir JAM Station”. The perfect name (he said, sarcastically) for a station wherein millions of dollars are being poured to try and keep Toronto from choking on its own congestion.
That’s probably not what he intended.
I am surprised that the politicians who believe that we should be renaming things to commemorate the recent and the long dead don’t talk about renaming streets in people’s honour. Yes, many of Toronto’s oldest streets are already named after real historical figures (“Peter Street” refers to a specific Peter, Strachan is named after Bishop Strachan and Techumseth is named after the first nation’s chief who fought in the War of 1812), but many other streets are boring re-renditions of Valley Hill This and Tree Colour That. There’s a street in York Region called 14th Avenue. There’s a street in Etobicoke called 30th. College isn’t named after a particular person. So why can’t the important names go there?
If the province of Quebec can do it, why can’t we?