Community Consultation: Sir John A. Macdonald Hall

On October 20, 1960, the building that would serve as the home of the Faculty of Law at Queen’s University was opened – a building then dedicated as “Sir John A. Macdonald Hall”. In June 2020, a petition and supporting letters were submitted to the Queen’s Board of Trustees asking that the building’s name be changed. In this statement, I will outline the approach that will be taken by the Faculty of Law in response, an approach which was developed in conjunction with the Principal’s office.


In 1960, it seemed appropriate to name the law school’s building after a local Kingston lawyer who went on to become a key figure – perhaps the key figure – in the confederation of the British North American provinces as the Dominion of Canada in 1867 as well as the country’s first Prime Minister. It was under John A. Macdonald that the remarkable project of Canada, as we now know it, got off the ground. In 1960, as the country approached its centenary, most Canadians regarded this project of nation-building, together with principal nation-builders like Macdonald, with a deep sense of gratitude and pride.

But what of Macdonald’s role in the treatment of Indigenous peoples and other racial minorities, and in particular his role in the development of the Indian residential school policy in the nineteenth century?

Had this question been put to anyone attending the opening of Macdonald Hall in 1960, the response would likely have been one of confusion. Few people then knew much about the history of Indigenous peoples in Canada. But even those who did may have applauded Macdonald. Indeed, the federal government was at that time engaged in a review of Indian affairs with a view to reinforcing the goal of assimilating Indigenous peoples into mainstream Canadian society – the same goal that led Macdonald’s government to initiate the Indian residential school policy in the early 1880s. In 1960, Indian residential schools were still in operation, and they remained a central part of the policy of assimilation that Macdonald and his generation had championed in the previous century.

In the sixty years since the opening of Macdonald Hall, societal attitudes on these points have evolved dramatically. As late as 1969, the federal government was still proposing the elimination of all distinctive legal and constitutional rights for Indigenous peoples. But the assimilationist policy was by then on its last legs. Over the next decade or so, judges began to accept the idea that Indigenous peoples in Canada have aboriginal and treaty rights that demand recognition, and politicians at both provincial and federal levels gradually came to revise their approaches to Indigenous relations. Indigenous nations, cultures, languages, and ways of life were to be respected not suppressed. Canada had begun a process of de-colonization. An important step in this process was the entrenchment of aboriginal and treaty rights in the Constitution of Canada in 1982. In its early judgments on these new constitutional provisions, the Supreme Court of Canada stated that the provisions called for a reckoning with the past and for a process of reconciliation.

Reconciliation means facing the dark parts of our past, including the Indian residential school policy and its implementation. We have only just begun to do this. It was not until the release of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in late 2015 that this part of our past was brought fully into the light. The TRC report documents how the residential school policy was premised explicitly upon the assertion that European or “white” culture is superior to Indigenous cultures; it explores how parents were forced to give up their children who were sent to live at distant institutions designed to eliminate Indigenous languages and cultures; it confirms that while at these institutions children were often exposed to neglect, hunger, disease, exploitation, and physical and sexual abuse. The TRC report confirms Macdonald’s part in the early development of the residential school policy.

That the legacy of residential schools is hurtful and lasting is now beyond dispute. Queen’s University has accepted the findings of the TRC and is committed to honouring its calls to action. The TRC identifies special responsibilities for law schools in Canada, and we have begun a process to ensure that we live up to those responsibilities.

This work began before I joined the faculty as dean last year – and indeed, work in this area was one of the reasons I was proud to leave my position as an academic working among other things on Indigenous legal studies at McGill to join Queen’s Law as its dean. Since the TRC released its report, we have welcomed an Indigenous Recruitment & Support Officer, Ann Deer, to the law school. We have also seen the integration of a number of Aboriginal and Indigenous law courses in its curriculum, and the creation, supported by alumnus David Sharpe, Law’95, of the Chief Don Maracle Reconciliation/Indigenous Knowledge Initiative. There are two bursaries to support Indigenous students at Queen’s Law, one instigated by a generous gift from the Queen’s Law Students Society. The school has also welcomed a wide range of Indigenous lecturers and visitors to the faculty, with 11 scholars and leaders visiting the school in the 2019-20 school year alone. I am always struck, when entering the law school atrium, to see both a significant piece of public art by Mohawk artist Hannah Claus, representing the wampum belt legal traditions of the Haudenosaunee, as well as a quote by Senator Murray Sinclair on the atrium wall – the latter a gift from the graduating class of Law’18.

None of this is a reason the name of the building should not be discussed – in fact, it underlines why this conversation is one that needs to happen.

It does not necessarily follow that Macdonald’s name should be removed from the law school’s building. But if we are to respect the ideal of reconciliation, then we do need to ask whether the building should continue to bear his name. The reasons for honouring Macdonald in 1960 still exist today. What I described above as the “project of Canada” that Macdonald helped to initiate remains an extremely valuable one. However, it is a project that is on-going and its progress must constantly be assessed and re-assessed in light of its underlying purposes, values and principles. Given what we now know about Macdonald, and what we now aspire to be as a society, there may be reasons to revisit the decision about the law building’s name. This kind of debate is not easy. However, if we approach this challenge through respectful dialogue and with a genuine sense of humility then I think it can only serve to strengthen our academic community – no matter what the outcome.

What’s next?

TimelineI have been asked by the Principal to begin a process of consultation and deliberation on the name of the law building and then to submit a report and recommendation to him on this point. The Principal will take this recommendation into account as he prepares a formal recommendation on the building name change to the Board of Trustees – the body that has final authority on these questions – in time for its late-September meeting.

We are committed to a principled discussion and we invite stakeholders from within and outside the Queen’s Law community to share their thoughts on the matter. I will be forming an advisory committee consisting of students, faculty, staff, and alumni that will welcome and consider comments from interested people. The law school’s Faculty Board will also deliberate on the question.

The focus of this process of consultation and deliberation will be on whether to maintain the Macdonald name on the building. Only if the Board of Trustees decides to de-name the building – to remove Macdonald’s name from the law school building – will a separate process about whether to re-name the building begin.

The consultation process with respect to the law building name targets a specific issue of importance and it will complement the work of other committees examining broader issues of importance facing the law school, including a working group examining curricular reform in response to the TRC’s calls to action on teaching Aboriginal law and Indigenous legal traditions, a working group examining the law school’s response to issues of systemic racism and the administration of justice, and a Strategic Planning Committee, launched in January, that is examining the identity and mission of the law school and charting a plan for the school for the next five years. Further information about the work of these various processes and opportunities for engagement with them will be provided.

Further details about the consultation process will be announced soon. If you would like to be informed of key events and developments as we proceed throughout this process, please contact us at

I thank you in advance for your thoughts and comments as we move forward in the coming weeks.

Mark Walters
Dean of Law