Editor’s note: Immanuel Giulea is the Founder and Executive Director of the Société Macdonald-Cartier Society.
Ottawa’s civic holiday in August is known as Colonel By Day. City Council reaffirmed that as recently as June 9–a decision that underlines the intimate connection between the City of Ottawa and its founder Lieutenant-Colonel John By.
In recent weeks, Bob Plamondon has created some publicity around the idea of renaming our venerable and historic Wellington Street in front of Parliament Hill. Those in favour of renaming the street argue that the Duke of Wellington never set foot in North America and had no connection to the city. Instead of honouring a relatively unknown figure, they argue, why not pay tribute to our first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald?
No one is questions the benign intentions of these advocates. But such a move suggests great ignorance regarding the Duke of Wellington’s contributions to Canada. It was Wellington who sent Colonel By to Canada to found the city and build the Rideau Canal. The Canal, which spans over 200 kilometres, was funded by Wellington and the British taxpayers. Having founded the City of Ottawa and funded one of the world’s most famous canals, retaining Wellington Street in its current form is a fitting accolade for a man who had so much influence over pre-Confederation Canada.
There is a much more practical reason for why Wellington Street should retain its name. Sir John A. Macdonald already has a street named after him (currently “MacDonald Street”), located within a mile of the Parliamentary precinct. Ottawa City Archives has confirmed that this street, as well as Cartier Street, were both named after these leading Fathers of Confederation.
This is why the Macdonald-Cartier Society favours correcting the spelling of MacDonald St to “Macdonald” and in the process renaming the street as “Sir John A. Macdonald” St. In parallel and to send a clear message, Cartier St could be renamed “Sir George-Etienne Cartier” St. Our proposal has received the support and endorsement of award-winning author, historian and professor emeritus Michael Bliss.
For a nation that is often criticized for showing indifference to its history, a public debate about honouring Canada’s historic figures is welcome. The level of civic literacy in this country is at an all-time low. Election after election, the level of participation of young Canadians is a dismal 25% or less. As author Rudyard Griffiths says, “If you don’t know what happened in 1867, or who your head of state is, or what part of the Constitution protects your freedoms, then you are at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding, let alone participating in, the key debates shaping your society.”
Based on this ignorance, it is easy to see why replacing the name of Wellington, a British general unknown to many Canadians, with that of the better-known Sir John A. might have superficial appeal. However, while it is important to honour the Fathers of Confederation, our praise should not come at the cost of displacing others whose roles were crucial in shaping this nation and its capital.
We should find another way to honour this nation’s first prime minister that does not come at the cost of discarding an even greater historical figure—the man who set in motion the founding of Bytown/Ottawa, the man who is really the founder of the nation’s capital.
Immanuel Giulea is the Founder and Executive Director of the Société Macdonald-Cartier Society.