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The ‘2nd Death’ of Sir John A. Macdonald

20-Oct-20 12:05 am EDT Leave a comment

Canada is, to some degree, disowning it’s first Prime Minister (PM), Sir John A. Macdonald. As every Canadian knows, Macdonald was something of a drunk and has been more recently cited as being an unrepentant assimilationist and among the lead architects of the residential schools programme (which, from Canada’s founding until the latter-half of the 20th century, took aboriginal children away from their families to a life of ritual abuse at the hands of government-funded authority). With aboriginal roots reaching well-into my own family, it might sound surprising that I am of two minds on the question.

First, Macdonald’s actions both on the aboriginal file (including the wrongful execution of Louis Riel from my home province of Manitoba), on the head tax levied against Chinese workers building the first railways, the CPR scandal among a number of corruption allegations, notorious alcoholism (including imbibing while sitting the House of Commons) and “fiscal insanity” according to a very forgiving review by a contemporary Canadian historian — there certainly is a lot to choose from when it comes to finding imperfections in this founding father of one of the world’s great nations. But as, secondly, as a student of history, I’ve always found it both difficult and unfair to judge the actions of our ancestors whilst living with all the creature comforts and morality of the modern age.

So here we are sitting with all the amenities of the early 21st century judging the rampant ignorance of those living in the 19th. What terrible people and fools they must all have been! Or so we say to ourselves — and not for the first time.

To take an example from the history of science, one could see with the benefits of 17th and 18th-century technology that Jupiter clearly had moons of its own and the Catholic Church’s original assertions that Earth must be the very center of the universe were clearly debunked by the Sun’s position there instead must also have seemed terribly ignorant. Indeed, there were those that said so.

Indeed, at first glance, Aristotle’s model of the solar system might seem a wireframe monstrosity gone horribly, horribly wrong. Until one factors in it’s a product of a unique genius making observations available to him with his own eyes, absent tools like the telescope living as he did in the 4th century BCE and with seemingly few people ahead of him in line making meaningful observations about the planets, the moon and the sun. Even after Aristotle helped spark further curiosity on the subject, by the Roman era people imagined the stars being phenomena hundreds of stadia away from the ground; or perhaps thousands. (The concept of a million as we know it was still to come down the road — not that even the nearest star could be measured in a distance meaningful in any way to a Roman citizen.)

Macdonald then was faced with challenges that bore out a considerable degree of immorality when judged by our 21st century standards. Of course the aboriginals had to be dealt with, sometimes harshly. He had a vision of Canada and the United States threatened that with invasion, as they’d done just over 50 years earlier in 1812. Claiming Cree and other tribal lands in Manitoba and elsewhere in the Canadian west was a priority to establish a Canadian-British claim on the territory, lest otherwise Canada not survive to see its own 50th birthday. And besides, as he would’ve seen it, bringing Anglo civilization to the ignorant, less technically sophisticated aboriginals could only be a good thing for them. The Spanish were the ones who’d used European technology to conquer their aboriginal peoples. Anglo civilization was gentler, more enlightened. So he’d have thought, surely.

So discredit where it’s due — but lets have the credit too, I say. Without Macdonald, we wouldn’t have Canada as we know it to hold up as a model for the rest of the world to follow. What he did to its aboriginal peoples was, of course, reprehensible, but assimilation policy was very British and the de facto approach when dealing with peoples that seemed irrationally resistant to its dominance (as happened in Ireland three centuries earlier when some bright folk decided that a certain “Ireland problem” needed dealing with). Macdonald it bears saying, with ample imperfections both personally and in policy-making, deserves to be credited with helping to forge the nation we’re all inextricably a part of today as Canadians and regardless of ancestral origin. A nation that embraces diversity in all its forms, conscious of social need and of being relied upon to (however eventually) fulfill its obligations to those it owes its friendship and duty, and fanatical in the pursuit of justice and service to its citizens.

Macdonald, whatever you may feel about him, helped create that nation undeniably. Maybe that means we rename a law school one day or remove a statue the next. But let’s not pretend he wasn’t among a tiny few to first and truly believe in something called Canada.

End of Final Shuttle Mission Yields Bitter Commentary

21-Jul-11 09:47 pm EDT 2 comments
This unprecedented view of the space shuttle Atlantis, appearing like a bean sprout against clouds and city lights, on its way home, was photographed by the Expedition 28 crew of the International Space Station. Airglow over Earth can be seen in the background. (Courtesy: http://www.nasa.gov)
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ox News has gained plenty of notoriety for injecting inflammatory rhetoric into its news coverage in recent years, but after seeing this recent video on the heels of watching coverage of Atlantis’ return to Earth at the end of the final shuttle mission, it seems the aim here is to turn the event into yet another political football.  The claim being that, unlike Kennedy, Obama is ending manned spaceflight in the U.S. to save money.  But, as is almost always the case where Fox commentary is concerned, there’s really more to the story.

What the authors of hundreds of Twitter messages that seem to be absorbing Fox’s take have missed is that the move is part of a larger plan to share the glory of (and hopes of profit in) with commercial entities.  Already it’s hoped that by the end of 2011 and certainly during 2012, unmanned commercial flights will take on resupply missions to the space station, with manned flights by the end of 2013.  An 18-24 month pause in manned spaceflight doesn’t seem like “an end” of any sort to me…

Still, one needs to concede that were the U.S. not sinking into a financial abyss at the moment, there’d likely not be any particular will to end shuttle flights during the hand-off to commercial enterprise; regardless of the arguments about how NASA’s presence in the open market would have made commercial manned spaceflight much less viable.  But SpaceX has already demonstrated that, flying an unmanned empty capsule aboard its Falcon 9 rocket, it and other companies are today much closer to having the capability to take over from NASA because of the decision to take it to the private sector.  NASA provided funding for some of SpaceX’s efforts as it is doing for 4 other companies which stand close to getting their own spacecraft off the ground.

In fact, I’ve seen a similar move before by government agencies with respect to privatization of previous government monopolies.  At the dawn of the Internet era, there was only a single ISP in Winnipeg, Manitoba (my home city).  A fellow named Bill Reid who directed the University of Manitoba’s (U of M) Computer Services department made a decision to take the Internet private.  Why wasn’t business doing this on its own?  Well MBNet (the ISP’s name) was offering dial-up access for free to students of the U of M and for an extremely low rate (base annual fee of $25 per account¹) which made private ISP service all but unviable.  But when MBNet kicked all its users off (or almost all) one fateful day, companies like Magic Online Services (later purchased by TotalNet of Montreal) stood ready that very day to offer service to the public.

At the time, there were those that saw MBNet’s move as being unfair – many were forced to make significant changes to their networking services in a very short period of time.  But at some point, stepping back was surely the right thing to do lest Winnipeg and even the province of Manitoba more generally make competition in the Internet services market a game played strictly by very large companies.  (Indeed, the market’ has largely gone that way in any event, but it’s quite possible the current situation would have been much worse.)  And I see the same being true for a much broader set of reasons where NASA is concerned.

Time will tell, of course — but at the very least Obama and the NASA administration shouldn’t be faulted for this effort.  The U.S. is experiencing a serious financial crisis and there’s little doubt even from the decision’s detractors that the private sector can ultimately do spaceflight more cost-effectively.  And at this point in history, surely that’s enough reason to make it a private concern…particularly when there exists a real possibility the U.S. won’t be able to afford manned missions on its own if steps aren’t taken to redress the crippling U.S. deficit.  Steps exactly like this one.  Indeed, one could well argue that this move will preserve manned spaceflight in the years ahead; and that not privatizing manned missions to space would threaten the continued ability of the U.S. to undertake such challenges.  Perhaps even threaten the existence of NASA as an agency of manned exploration anywhere but in historical texts.

Hopefully in the long run, those on Twitter who’ve thus far spared the time to barely read the lead into neocon-authored editorials will eventually find time to hear the full story.  Of course, there are a few other obstacles that stand in the way of that: the realization that a previous Republican administration deregulated the financial services sector and started a war with 2 countries creating a situation where decisions like this were inevitable.  And I’m not sure that message will ever get the kind of reception necessary for Twitter-bound hecklers to cease their de facto campaign of complaints re #nasa.

But the taste of the last shuttle’s return to Earth would sure be less bitter for it if they did.


¹ An original document containing MBNet’s fee structure was located while doing research from this story.  Based on my memory of extensive prior MBNet usage, I can testify its authenticity.

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