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 that 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 non-indigenous 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 60 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 academic 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, the TRC chair, on the atrium wall – the latter a graduating class gift from 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 ongoing 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 re-visit 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?

I was asked by Principal Patrick Deane to begin a process of community consultation and deliberation on the name of the law building and then to submit a report and recommendation to him. The Principal will take this recommendation into account as he prepares a formal recommendation on the question of the name of the building to the Board of Trustees – the body with authority on this question – in time for a special meeting in the Fall.

In order to begin a principled discussion, I have formed an advisory committee consisting of students, faculty, staff, and alumni that will welcome and consider written and oral comments from interested people. The law school’s Faculty Board will also deliberate on the question. (See the committee’s Terms of Reference, including its membership.)

Members of the Queen’s community and the general public interested in this issue are invited to make written submissions by completing the online survey before September 18, 2020. Those who prefer may email written comments to or leave comments as a voice message by calling (833) 533-2554 or, from the Kingston area, (613) 533-2554.

The focus of this process of consultation and deliberation is the present name of the building. If the Board of Trustees decides to remove Sir John A. Macdonald’s name from the law school building, there may be a separate process about whether to re-name the building at a later date.  

The consultation process with respect to the law building name complements the work of other Faculty groups and 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, 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 groups and opportunities for engagement with them will be available soon. 

If you would like to be kept informed by email about key events and developments as we proceed through the building name consultation process, please send a request to

We encourage you to complete the online survey, email a written submission, and/or consider other opportunities to participate in this discussion. Thank you for your thoughts and comments. 

Mark Walters 

Dean of Law