Jason Kenney has built his political reputation around a willingness to fight, and he’s been happy to do battle on everything from energy to equalization. But it seems nothing gets Kenney as animated — or as agitated — as the idea of fighting so-called “cancel culture.” He showed that again on Tuesday, when a reporter asked if it was time to remove the names of people closely associated with the residential school system, like Sir John A. Macdonald and Bishop Grandin, from public buildings in the wake of the discovery of remains of 215 children on the site of a former Kamloops, B.C., residential school.
“This is the problem with your line of questioning,” he told CTV’s Shannon Johnston. “If the new standard is to cancel any figure in our history associated with what we now rightly regard as historical injustices, then essentially that is the vast majority of our history. Instead, I think we need to learn from it, to learn from both the greatness, the audacity of vision and the generosity of spirit of former leaders.”
For most Indigenous Canadians, “generosity of spirit” would not be the first description that comes to mind when talking about the architect of the residential school system. But there was much more in this vein, and at one point in the press conference — which was about the province’s plan to deliver second doses of COVID-19 vaccines — he doubled back to continue making his point about cancel culture.
“If we want to get into a debate about cancelling Canadian history,” he said, “we need to understand that it’s all of our history. I think that kind of destructive spirit is not really the spirit of reconciliation. The spirit of reconciliation is to learn from the wrongs of the past, (and) to seek to remedy them, while knowing our history and moving forward together.”
Pontificating on the nature of reconciliation is a tone-deaf move at the best of times, to say nothing of the days following the discovery of a mass grave of Indigenous children. But for Kenney, it seems, that news — and indeed, the events of the last five years — hasn’t changed his perspective one bit. After all, his comments at the press conference are very similar (and in some cases identical) to those he made in a campaign video in 2017, where he delivered a speech about the perils of cancel culture while standing next to a strategically placed blue pickup truck in front of Sir John A. Macdonald Junior High. “The point is we always strive to do better,” he says in the video. “But I reject this campaign of total defamation, of historical vandalism directed at our founding prime minister.”
Kenney isn’t the only person in his orbit who hasn’t updated their thinking on this issue. Chris Champion, the historian and former Conservative staffer who Kenney tapped to help write the social studies component of Alberta’s controversial new K-6 curriculum, also doubled down on his pre-existing beliefs in the wake of the Kamloops discovery. In a Twitter exchange, the Dorchester Review — the journal Champion founded and edits — suggested that Indigenous children were at residential schools like the one in Kamloops “because in many cases their parents wanted them there. That's why this should be based on research, not the politics and cashola of the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission).”
Comments like that reflect the bias that Champion and others in Kenney’s inner circle, including former speechwriter Paul Bunner, who once described the residential school system as a “bogus genocide story,” consistently show on this issue. That bias is baked into the province’s new curriculum, which ignores the TRC’s call to make information about “residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada” mandatory requirements for K-12 students.
But Kenney’s fixation on protecting statues and names of schools and buildings reflects a broader misunderstanding of how history works — and how it ought to. As Guardian columnist Gary Younge wrote in a recent piece, “history is not set in stone. It is a living discipline, subject to excavation, evolution and maturation. Our understanding of the past shifts. Our views on women’s suffrage, sexuality, medicine, education, child-rearing and masculinity are not the same as they were 50 years ago, and will be different again in another 50 years.”
That might be what Kenney is most worried about when it comes to so-called “cancel culture.” His past, after all, includes well-documented efforts on his part while attending Bible college in San Francisco to prevent gay men and women from visiting their dying partners in hospital during the height of the AIDS crisis.
And while he may regret those actions today, he didn’t seem to mind talking them up in a 2000 speech. “I became president of the pro-life group in my campus and helped to lead an ultimately successful initiative petition, which led to a referendum which overturned the first gay spousal law in North America, in 1989 in San Francisco. I fought a lot of battles there.”
Those battles, and his role in them, aren’t about to be forgotten any time soon. As he watches the growing push to remove the influence of Sir John A. Macdonald from shared public places, perhaps he can feel the weight and judgment of history bearing down on him as well.