Erasing History? On Problematic Representations of the Past

An Angus Reid poll found that 55% of Canadians are against renaming schools named after Sir John A. Macdonald. When it comes to statues however, 71% are open to the idea of relocating monuments to museums where they can be viewed in proper historical context. [Source]

I’m about two weeks late on all the buzz surrounding this topic, but oh well. I have been thinking a lot about representations of history throughout 2017; how we choose to commemorate the past, as well as the politics and implications that go along with this. It’s hard not to think about, what with the #Canada150 rhetoric in full swing throughout the first half of the year, along with all of the controversies around historical place names and statues both here and in the US. This post has to do with the latter. This is not an opinion piece, rather it is a collection of the many different opinions that have emerged from the debate on statues and place names honouring problematic figures from Canadian and American history. I leave it up to you to make up your own mind.

Confederate Memorial vandalized in Denton, Texas [Source]

I remember hearing a joke once that if aliens crash landed anywhere in the southern United States, after walking around for a bit they would come to the conclusion that the south had won the civil war. There are a lot of monuments dedicated to the Confederate States of America; a 2016 report states there are at least 718 of them. The recent removal of various Confederate statues have set off a firestorm of controversy throughout the US that has unfortunately turned violent in some cases. The debate however mirrors the discussion up here in Canada over Edward Cornwallis, Egerton Ryerson, and Sir John A. Macdonald.

The statue of Edward Cornwallis in Halifax is covered with a black tarp. [Source]

Brief Refresher:

  • Edward Cornwallis was a British military general credited with establishing Halifax in 1749. In that same year, he also issued the Scalping Proclamation; his government would pay a bounty to anyone who scalped a Mi’kmaq adult or child. He was also involved in the Highland Clearances.
  • Egerton Ryerson was instrumental in the establishment of the universal public education system in Ontario. His ideas on education however influenced the creation of the Residential School System.
  • Sir John A. Macdonald was a Father of Confederation and Canada’s first Prime Minister. He was also, as Sean Carleton (and many others) put it, the real architect of the Residential School System.

Whether the debate is over statues like the one for Cornwallis in Halifax or over place names like Ryerson University and Ontario public schools that bear Macdonald’s name, at the core of the argument is the question over what does it mean to commemorate the past?

Some argue that removing statues and names erases history. These historical figures are a part of the nation’s past and why Canada and the United States exists as they do today. To remove them is an erasure of history from the public realm. Others feel these commemorations should stay because they serve as reminders of the nation’s dark past and that to remove them covers up the injustices of our history. This is essentially the argument that Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne made in her response to the calls to change the names of public schools named after Macdonald. “We need to teach our children the full history of this country — including colonialism, our indigenous peoples and their history and about what our founders did to create Canada and make it the country it is today.” [Source]

Are they really being erased though? Removing names and statues isn’t scrubbing their legacies  from every history textbook. They will continue to be studied regardless. Furthermore, while the intention of commemorations is to honour the “good” that these figures did for their country, to some they serve as a permanent reminder of historical and ongoing injustices. Depending on the historical figure, their statues and names are painfully reflective of racism, abuse, slavery, segregation, cultural genocide, etc.

When it comes to  historical figures and deciding who to esteem, it seems like we place them on a imaginary scales of justice and attempt to weigh their legacy based the amount of good and bad they did. This is why it is easier to attack some historical figures than others. Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, the army general and president of the Confederate States of America, respectively, were traitors. Their legacies are forever attached to attempting to preserve slavery. Condemning Lee and Davis is easy. That being said, the problem with analyzing legacy in this manner is that there is a certain level of subjectivity involved. Sometimes bad past actions can outweigh good ones depending on one’s perspective. Sometimes the good can be seen as so important, the bad is brushed aside completely.

Fathers of Confederation by Rex Woods.

Case in point: The Fathers of Confederation or America’s Founding Fathers (well, the “main” ones).* There are some calls for statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to be torn down because both were slave-owners.Those who want their statues removed are facing an uphill battle however, given the highly esteemed positions both Washington and Jefferson hold in American history.

The same can be said about Macdonald and Canadian history as he is seen as the mastermind behind Confederation. Although the main smear against Macdonald is his role in the Residential School System, he has a number of other things weighing his legacy down: using starvation as a weapon to force Indigeneous Peoples to relocate to reserves, passing the Chinese Immigration Act/Chinese “head tax,” squashing Métis resistance, etc. On the scales of legacy, do these actions outweigh the whole first Prime Minister/Confederation factor?

* When I say “main ones,” I mean those who are still well-known today. Langevin Block, in honour of Hector-Lous Langevin, was renamed the Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council earlier this year. Langevin was another Father of Confederation with strong ties to the Residential School System. The name change did not generate the same level of buzz that the call for changing the school names did, probably because Langevin isn’t as well-known as Macdonald. It is harder to remove commemorations for famous historical figures.

Some question whether the values of 2017 should be applied to a 19th century politician. Is it foolish to judge historical figures when they were reflective of the time they lived in? This is labelled as presentism: using present-day values and perspectives to interpret and judge the past. It is looked down upon in the study of history because presentism skews the past; judging historical factors or people based on the present says more about modern values than anything else. The aforementioned Angus Reid poll found that 69% of respondents felt it was wrong to judge historical figures based on “today’s concept of racism.”

On the other side, some argue though that Macdonald’s views were seen as extreme back in the day and that history is not static. It is not just a record of past; history is constantly being rewritten and reinterpreted. Our understanding the past changes overtime and will continue to. Not everyone agrees with this, of course, and would label any rewriting of history as revisionism.

I think everyone can agree that history is just a god damn mess.

Robert E. Lee statue is removed in New Orleans [Source]

Nevertheless, commemorations do not exist in a bubble and can take on new meanings overtime. For example, most of the Confederate statues were constructed between the 1890s and the 1960s; the Jim Crow segregation era. There was a surge in monuments in the 1950s which historians see as part of a backlash against the civil rights movement. These statues therefore are about more than just the men they depict, but they also reflect time that they are created.

Some question what is the point of removing them? It’s symbolic at best. If all of the Confederate statues in America were removed, if MacDonald’s name vanished from schools across Canada, overt and systemic racism towards African-Americans and Indigenous Peoples would persist. The argument here is that efforts and attention should be spent on creating meaningful change, not superficial ones. Others feel name changes and statue removal are a sign of political correctness gone amuck. “First Ryerson, now Macdonald, who’s next…Laurier?!” “Are we going to change everything that references someone from the past?” “Everything is offensive!” While this is essentially the slippery slope fallacy, it does raise one of the sad truths about history: All your favs are problematic. There is always going to be something wrong with a historical figure because no one is perfect. (Human flaws do not really excuse horrible actions though).

Finally, can you support both these commemorations and the values of the Truth and Reconciliation (TRC)? Can you be against the removal of Confederate statues and not be a racist? Some feel that if you support these commemorations, you are saying you are fine with all the horrible things these men did. Regarding just the TRC, some point out that the report doesn’t actually call for the removal statues or place names. Prominent figures such as Justice Murray Sinclair have spoken out against changing the school names. Is there any nuance or is it a purely black and white issue?

What do you think? Do you think statues and place names dedicated to problematic historical figures should be removed or should things stay as is?

Edit: Please see Antony Caruso’s insightful addition to this conversation in the comments below. He suggests applying the Witt test when faced with difficult questions about historical representations.


Carleton, S. “John A. Macdonald was the real architect of residential schools.” Toronto Star. (July 9, 2017). Accessed from:

Gruending, D. “Buildings and statues, controversy swirls around John A. Macdonald.” (Sept 1, 2017). Accessed from:

Ivison, J. “Even John A. Macdonald isn’t safe from a foolish revisionism that never ends.” The National Post. (Aug 24, 2017). Accessed from:

Lanktree, G. “Racism in America: Should the U.S. Get Rid of All Confederate Monuments?” Newsweek. (Sept 9, 2017). Accessed from:

Tattrie, J. R.”Edward Cornwallis.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. (Jan 13, 2008). Accessed from:

“US Confederate monuments: What is the debate about?” Al Jazeera News. (Aug 24, 2017). Accessed from:

6 thoughts on “Erasing History? On Problematic Representations of the Past

  1. Matthew says:

    Solution: Don’t name schools for politicans or build monuments for them.

    I like the idea of putting the statues in museums but it’s not practical. I’m not sure how many canadian statues are an issue but with the states…that’s a loooooot of statues to shove into museums. Maybe keep the best looking ones?


    • cadeauca says:

      Hahaha, that’s one way to deal with the issue. Reminds me of something I saw on Twitter, “just name every school after Terry Fox and be done with it.”

      I don’t know…apparently there are 35,000+ museums in the US so 😛


  2. LTerech says:

    You came back punching! Great read with a question at the end that is really difficult to answer. I agree, museums are fantastic place to have the big conversations that need to take place when examining the past, and interesting point about the confederate statues and looking at the time that they were created. Context is everything.

    As for good ol’ John A… if the names stay, have the conversations in the classrooms that remove the shine. Sure, he was the first PM, but he was flawed. Explain his policies, the ramifications of them and why they should never be repeated. Hopefully if you teach the kids, they will remember and not repeat the past.

    Liked by 1 person

    • cadeauca says:

      Thank you very much! I’ve been wanting to write about this issue since the debate over Cornwallis emerged. I couldn’t resist once Macdonald got thrown into the mix.

      “Have the conversations in the classrooms that remove the shine.” This is so important. Modern issues that countries face have historical contexts. To teach a one-sided, glossy version of history does students a great disservice. You gotta present history as it is, warts and all.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Antony Caruso says:

    Great posting! My first reaction when I heard that people wanted to remove John A.’s name was “No way!” A typical knee-jerk reaction, considering how much I admire John A. (as well as many other people) that helped bring about Confederation.

    But as more information came to light, I quickly remembered that History is not as static and unchanging as the statues we erect to honour it. History changes as we gather more evidence about events and people of the past.

    So I say, “Bring it on!” We need to have these conversations. I always knew that Macdonald was far from perfect. In fact, that is what I like about our history—we don’t deify historical figures as some countries do. We present them as they were, warts and all!

    Sometimes, we tended to focus too much on those warts. Macdonald was usually presented as a conniving drunk when I was in school. I later learned that his alcoholism was most likely due to the tragedies in his life. When he was seven, he watched his care-giver beat his four-year-old brother James to death. His father was an unsuccessful business man and that would have put a strain on the family. Macdonld’s first son died when he was 13 months old. His first wife, Isabella, was an invalid during most of their married life and she died in 1857. He married again and in 1869, they had a child, Mary, but she was born with hydrocephalus and was severely disabled. Macdonald also racked up a large debt looking after his first wife Isabella, and then his daughter. In 1868, “ …he sat in the April slush of an Ottawa doorstep cradling the shattered head of Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a boon drinking pal, dead from an assassin’s bullet. He came home blood-splattered and white-faced with shock, according to Agnes’s diary: “McGee is murdered, it’s true,” he told her.” (

    Now, the things you mention “weighing his legacy down” are more than just ‘warts’ and we must weigh these as we examine the life of John A. and decide how it will affect his legacy.

    So, is there an objective way we can decide if statues and place names should be removed?

    I think there might be, and I present this for discussion for you and your readers.

    I would like to draw your attention to an opinion piece that was in the Globe and Mail dated July 15, 2017 entitled “Langevin, Ryerson, Cornwallis: Is our past unfit for the present?” by Peter Shawn Taylor (

    In the piece, Taylor believed,

    “…with nearly every major Canadian historical figure somehow implicated in our country’s often-shameful treatment of Indigenous peoples, we need a better way to decide which parts of our past are truly unfit for present-day consumption.”

    He believes that we should consider the Witt Test.

    Professor John Fabian Witt is an historian and a Law Professor at Yale Law School. In 2016, the university asked Witt to resolve a controversy that was brewing at the university. There were people who wanted to change the name of Calhoun College, named for benefactor John S. Calhoun, who was an outspoken proponent of slavery just prior to the Civil War. Witt’s response was a unique series of questions meant to assess the validity of renaming demands.

    Taylor went on,
    “Prof. Witt begins with the overarching principle that name changes should be considered ‘exceptional events’ and not frivolous or political acts. “Renaming has often reflected excessive confidence in moral orthodoxies,” he observes, pointing with caution to the Soviet Union. Then again, not every urge to rename is Orwellian: post- Apartheid South Africa or post-Nazi West Germany, for example.”

    And so Taylor believes that we can use the Witt test (which he modified for Canadian use) to help decide what deserves to be removed and what should stay.

    These are the four questions of the Witt Test:

    1. Is the principal legacy of the namesake fundamentally at odds with Canadian values? This requires a broad understanding of the life’s work of the individual in question.

    2. Was the relevant principal legacy significantly contested during the namesake’s lifetime? Isolated statements or actions considered controversial today may have been conventional wisdom at the time. Context matters.

    3. At the time of the naming, was the namesake honoured for reasons fundamentally at odds with Canadian values? Why was this person commemorated?

    4. Does the building play a substantial role in forming community? The more prominent the edifice, the greater the case for retaining names of historical significance, Prof. Witt says.

    What do you think? What do your readers think?

    One last point. Maybe we need to change the function of these statues from a commemorative symbol to a lightning rod. Maybe we need to keep in full view such statues as a reminder of both the good and the bad that has been done. Just look at the discussions about history that they have created. Would this have happened if we didn’t have these statues and place names?

    Once again I say, “Bring it on!” We need to have these conversations.


    • cadeauca says:

      My initial response was split, when it came to the Confederate and Cornwallis statues I was supportive of their removal, but less so when it came to Ryerson and Macdonald. I understood and agreed with a lot of the arguments being made for their removal, but I still felt it would be better to keep them because they serve as great teachable moments. Every time Ryerson University talks about where they got their name from, they have to mention both the positives and negatives. Having your school named after Macdonald also gives teachers a great opportunity to present to students a full picture of our first PM. While writing this post I began to question my stance and realized I was getting caught up in the subjective legacy weighing. Now I feel the best way to move forward is to put forward the question of removal to the community where the commemoration exists.

      Thank you for sharing the Witt test; what a fantastic addition to the ongoing “Monument Wars” conversation. I’m going to edit the original post to direct future readers to take a look at it.

      1. Which Canadian values? If we choose multiculturalism and embracing diversity than yes.
      2. No, you can argue his views were more extreme but for the most part they were consistent with 19th century society.
      3. Depends on when the school was built.
      4. You can argue this both ways. School are communities in themselves, but those not a part of the school community are arguably not affected by it.

      I seem to have come to a draw, but others can come with their own (better) answers.

      ” Maybe we need to change the function of these statues from a commemorative symbol to a lightning rod. Maybe we need to keep in full view such statues as a reminder of both the good and the bad that has been done.”

      I wholeheartedly agree. Thank you so much for your insightful comment and for expanding the conversation greatly. Bring it on, indeed!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s