KINGSTON, Ontario — It is impossible to escape the presence of Sir John A. Macdonald in Kingston, Ontario.
His name is on the highway into town, a main boulevard through the city and buildings across the educational spectrum, from a new elementary school in a suburb to the law school of the prestigious Queen’s University.
Macdonald, whose visage adorns the Canadian $ 10 bill, was Canada’s first prime minister and the chief broker of the political deal that created the country 150 years ago.
He was also a man who, even many of his admirers acknowledge, was crassly racist toward Canada’s indigenous population, and whose policies included a forced schooling program for more than 100,000 children that a national commission recently declared “cultural genocide.”
Now Kingston, the place where he is most honored, has become ground zero in a debate over how — or if — to commemorate his legacy.
Like the current dispute in the United States over Civil War monuments, the subject is an emotionally charged one in Canada, but it has been limited to arguments and acts of vandalism, without any violent clashes.
A union of elementary schoolteachers in Ontario passed a resolution this month calling on school boards to strip Macdonald’s name from the nine schools in the province, Canada’s most populous, that bear it, a move that outraged many Canadians and drew sharp criticism from some politicians.
John Baird, a minister in the previous Conservative government, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that scrubbing Macdonald’s name from schools was “crazy and ridiculous,” an example of “trying to erase Canadian history in the guise of an extreme and radical political correctness.”
But Perry Bellegarde, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Canada’s largest indigenous organization, said that removing Macdonald’s name from schools could be part of the program promised by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to reconcile with Canada’s indigenous people for wrongs like forced schooling.
“If I am a young person and I know that John A. Macdonald initiated great harm on my people, I would not feel very good attending a school with that name on it,” Mr. Bellegarde said. “Why would you subject young children to that?”
The country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission spent about six years gathering testimony from surviving students of the indigenous boarding schools, and Mr. Trudeau has committed to fulfilling most of the 96 recommendations for reconciling with indigenous people proposed by the commission.
Over a period of roughly 100 years, about 150,000 indigenous children were taken from their families, sometimes by the police, and sent to the residential schools that were administered by churches.
The commission found that many of those children were sexually and physically abused at the schools and some died. The teachers and staff at many schools were incompetent or worse, the commission found, adding that “child neglect was institutionalized.”
Macdonald said that an indigenous child educated where he or she lives “is simply a savage who can read and write,” whereas children sent to boarding schools “will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.” To assimilate students, the schools banned indigenous languages and prohibited, sometimes forcefully, indigenous cultural practices.
Macdonald also cleared the path for a transcontinental railway in the 1880s in some areas by withholding food relief for indigenous people during a famine until they moved to government-established reserves. The residents of several reserves were confined to them unless they could obtain a pass from a government agent to travel.
In Kingston’s leafy City Park, which includes a cricket ground, a statue of Macdonald, who led Canada from 1867 to 1873 and then again from 1878 until his death in 1891, has become a center of celebrations and protests.
Fourteen years ago, Arthur Milnes, a local author and self-described “public historian,” gathered eight people at the statue on Jan. 11, Macdonald’s generally accepted birthday. They sang “O Canada” and “God Save the Queen” and offered a toast to the former prime minister, whose love of drinking is part of his lore.
In subsequent years, the crowd grew into the hundreds, choirs performed, and Mr. Milnes received money from the previous Conservative government for a variety of Macdonald-related commemorations.
“I felt and still feel that whether Macdonald was or wasn’t a racist, what he did, joined by a lot of other fathers of confederation, was an incredible thing,” Mr. Milnes said. “For all our faults, and we have them, by world standards if you’re born a Canadian, you’re a lucky person.”
The statue and Canada have very different meanings for Krista D’Amour Flute, a Lakota Sioux who was adopted by a non-indigenous Canadian family days after her birth in South Dakota.As a teenager, she grew estranged from her adoptive parents and became an activist on indigenous issues.
“People say, ‘Well, that was the spirit of the times,’” Ms. D’Amour Flute said, wearing a sleeveless T-shirt that dismissed Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations this year with an expletive. But during his lifetime, she pointed out, “not everybody agreed with John A.’s policies and outlooks, not everybody agreed that indigenous people should be treated the way they were. Not everybody thought as he did.”
She added: “John A. was a particular zealot against indigenous people. You need to look at that particular level of zeal to say, ‘Yes, this was a truly horrible man.’”
Professor James Daschuk is a historian at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan whose work in books like “Clearing the Plains,” which described Macdonald using starvation to control indigenous people, often comes up in the debate.
While people in Canada will liken Macdonald’s actions affecting indigenous people to George Washington’s ownership of slaves, Professor Daschuk said there was a critical difference.
“People say that George Washington owned slaves and he flourished in a system that accepted that,” he said. “The equivalent of that is that Macdonald started the system of slavery.”
Ms. D’Amour Flute said that for years she went down and stared at the statue of Macdonald as an act of defiance. Then she learned about Mr. Milne’s annual toast in 2011.
By that point she was part of Idle No More, a group of indigenous activists who reject their traditional leadership and its approach of working with the government. They began appearing at the toast and attempted to drown it out with anti-Macdonald speeches and demands for the statue’s removal, possibly to a museum.
In recent years, vandals, never found by the police, painted slogans on the statue, poured red paint on it, slashed the tires of Mr. Milnes’s car and defaced plaques in front of two houses where Macdonald once lived.
Ms. D’Amour Flute said that while Idle No More was not responsible, she did not condemn the vandalism.
This January, there was no toast, a step Mr. Milnes said he took in the interest of public safety.
Felipe Pareja, the teacher from suburban Toronto who introduced the motion to remove Macdonald’s name from schools, said the timing, in connection with the recent violence in Charlottesville, Va., was just a coincidence. The push to get rid of the Macdonald name, he said, came out of recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, the inquiry that condemned Macdonald’s school polices.
“These residential schools were created for the purpose of separating aboriginal children from their families, in order to minimize and weaken family ties and cultural linkages, and to indoctrinate children into a new culture — the culture of the legally dominant Euro-Christian Canadian society, led by Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald,” the commission reported.
Kathleen Wynne, the premier of Ontario, said in a statement that the call to remove Macdonald’s name “missed the mark,” and she urged the local school boards responsible for the decision not to take the step.
“We need to teach our children the full history of this country — including colonialism, indigenous peoples and their history, and about what our founders did to create Canada and make it the country it is today,” Ms. Wynne said.
That view was echoed by the employees and a handful of patrons in Kingston’s Royal Tavern, once Macdonald’s venue of choice for political rallies.
“Things happened back that then should be left alone,” said Mick Smith, bartender. “That is what history is about. It might even make people realize what did take place back then by still seeing the name.”
But Charlottesville and its aftermath seem to have influenced the opinion of at least one of the players in the Kingston debate.
While saying he does not accept the historical analysis of Mr. Macdonald put forward by Idle No More, Mr. Milnes said he had learned from the current battle over Confederate Army symbolism in the United States “that context matters.”
Over the last few days, he said, he came to realize that if “you respectfully take the statue down and you put it in a museum, you’re not disrespecting the father of confederation.”
“Sometimes we like to hold ourselves up as this perfect, inclusive, nonracist society, but we’re not,” he added. “At the end, I can’t promise you all of us will agree, but I’m confident we’re heading to a better place.”