Updating the Dark Side of Sandy Hill

Reconciliation and walking tours

Hilary Duff

When I set out to design last year’s Dark Side of Sandy Hill walking tour, I had one goal: to provide a creative way for neighbours to safely gather during the pandemic. Preparing to offer the tours again for a second year has presented the opportunity to reflect on what exactly I want to say as an individual, and what I personally would like our community to represent.

Two stops on the tour feature the homes of former Canadian Prime Ministers: John A. Macdonald at Stadacona Hall, today the Brunei High Commission at 395 Laurier Avenue East; and Wilfrid Laurier and William Lyon Mackenzie King in Laurier House at Laurier and Chapel, now a National Historic Site.

Last year, the Stadacona Hall stop was a quick one Ñ more an opportunity to point out the limestone “cottage” and mention that Macdonald lived in a number of Sandy Hill residences during his time in government.

This year, as I update the walking tour script, I think about the increasingly nuanced conversation we’re having about the legacies of Canada’s former leaders. Here are just a few points to contemplate.

As Macdonald was enjoying the relative peacefulness of our neighbourhood, the Indian Act was introduced and passed by Parliament in 1876. Macdonald made many damning comments about Indigenous people throughout his political career, and I choose not to further amplify those here.

Two years later, when he was elected Prime Minister and appointed the Minister of Indian Affairs, Macdonald commissioned a report to examine how the United States had instituted a residential school system for Indigenous children. The author of that report, Nicholas Flood Davin, is considered another of the architects of Canada’s residential school system. Shortly after, Macdonald’s government formally adopted the residential school system with many government- and church-run institutions opening inÊ1880. Would Macdonald have been thinking of the devastation and suffering these policies would inflict on Indigenous families while sitting on the terrace at Stadacona Hall? And would he have cared?

I’ve heard the arguments: the past is the past and this was a different time. Surely politicians were making these decisions in the best interest of our country and Indigenous peoples themselves. But this simply wasn’t true.

Fast forward to Wilfrid Laurier’s term as Prime Minister between 1896 and 1911, when the residential school system and the expansion of white settlement into western Canada were well underway. During that time, Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce, Chief Medical Officer with the Department of Interior and Indian Affairs, penned a report about residential schools in Manitoba and the Northwest Territories. That 1907 report called for reform of the system, referencing that many children had died of tuberculosis because of poor ventilation and standards of care from school staff. The report went unpublished (but was leaked) and its re-commendations were largely ignored by Laurier’s government.

I am not the only person in Sandy Hill contemplating the controversial legacy of these Canadian figureheads. Prime Minister’s Row, a community-based initiative to establish Laurier Avenue East as the first outdoor street museum, will host consultation sessions this month to discuss this very matter, among other details of their plans. And Parks Canada is in the midst of updating its Laurier House programming to better incorporate the experiences of the everyday people employed by Mackenzie King.

Legacies are complex. The questioning of Canada’s “great” leaders and the occurrences of the past year have earned a spectrum of reactions: the removal of John A. Macdonald statues in Kingston and Victoria and the proposed renaming of Ryerson University, among others. For some, this is a necessary step towards reconciliation; for others, it is a personal attack on patriotism and pride. It is up to all of us to form our own opinions of Canada’s past, the moments in which this country has represented equity and acceptance, and the times when it has systematically stamped out the very same.

As someone who has the privilege of presenting the stories and histories of others, it’s my responsibility not to forgo speaking of these realities for the purpose of an apolitical, lighthearted tour, or because of my fear of courting debate. That is why I am choosing to update this walking tour to reflect what is mentioned above. Indigenous folks do not have the option of ignoring the impact of residential schools, so why should I? Why should we?

There are three opportunities to attend Hilary’s Dark Side of Sandy Hill walking tour: on Sunday, Oct. 24, 2 p.m. with Heritage Ottawa (ticket price applies, see heritageottawa.org/heritage-ottawa-walking-tours), and on Thursday, Oct. 28 and Friday, Oct. 29 at 6 p.m. (by donation, organized by Action Sandy Hill, see bit.ly/darksideofsandyhill.