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]
- 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: https://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2017/07/09/john-a-macdonald-was-the-real-architect-of-residential-schools.html
Gruending, D. “Buildings and statues, controversy swirls around John A. Macdonald.” Rabble.ca. (Sept 1, 2017). Accessed from: http://www.rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/pulpit-and-politics/2017/09/buildings-and-statues-controversy-swirls-around-john
Ivison, J. “Even John A. Macdonald isn’t safe from a foolish revisionism that never ends.” The National Post. (Aug 24, 2017). Accessed from: http://nationalpost.com/news/politics/john-ivison-even-john-a-macdonald-isnt-safe-from-a-foolish-revisionism-that-never-ends#comments-area
Lanktree, G. “Racism in America: Should the U.S. Get Rid of All Confederate Monuments?” Newsweek. (Sept 9, 2017). Accessed from: http://www.newsweek.com/should-america-rid-itself-confederate-monuments-661991
Tattrie, J. R.”Edward Cornwallis.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. (Jan 13, 2008). Accessed from: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/edward-cornwallis/
“US Confederate monuments: What is the debate about?” Al Jazeera News. (Aug 24, 2017). Accessed from: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/08/confederate-statues-debate-170821104705027.html