Across the country and across the world, there is a movement to take a more critical look at our heroes from the past. At a local level, when we set out to celebrate our history, our founding fathers, our notable citizens, we need to make sure that we are accurately represent both the people involved and the effect they had.
In Brandon we have at least two streets named after people widely known for their fraudulent activities relating to railways and real estate. One of them was an unrepentant veteran of the Confederate Army. On a lighter note we have a bridge named after a respected Canadian explorer, who never set foot here.
Fortunately we don’t have statues.
If our goal is to help citizens understand their country, statues don’t help.
There are two themes at play in the efforts to defend the whole concept of statues and commemoration.
One line of argument is that by removing a statue we are “erasing history”.
Another line of argument is that various misdeeds shouldn’t be viewed through the lens of today’s values – everybody was racist, everybody was on board with the colonialism and brutality that is part of the legacy of some of our “heroes”.
The simple answer is that the premise for each argument is factually untrue. Period. In the case of the erasing history argument, once we realize that statues are not history, then the second argument, the “everybody was doing it argument”, becomes irrelevant - but still very interesting and worthy of study. It might have merit except for the fact that we often don’t actually know that “everybody was doing it”. We were told that by the people who were doing it. The truth is that there were always people who knew better. There were always two sides to each issue. They put up statues for the side that won at the time.
To pick another example close to home, if Peter Nygard really is guilty of the crimes for which he stands accused, I’m sure his victims aren’t too happy with an “everybody was doing it excuse”. There has always been sexual abuse. It has always been wrong. It was wrong in 1800. It is wrong now. The difference is that in 1800 the power structures supported it. That doesn’t mean everyone agreed. The same is true for racism and financial crimes.
Statues vs History
Statues are more likely to create history than they are to explain it. In fact it is the statues and other various forms of commemoration that create and perpetuate false history. It has taken historians decades to try and counter myth making involved in the ridiculous notion that Columbus discovered America. Or that Iraq was behind the 9/11 attack.
Statues, like other forms of commemoration, are erected for a purpose. That purpose is often to perpetuate and reinforce a point of view. That the particular point of view might possibly be wrong should be self-evident.
In the Southern United States, Statues of Confederate war heroes were placed to counter any thought the public might have that their war had been wrong, and that civil rights for blacks might be worth considering. They appeared when advocates for civil rights began to gain some attention.
War Memorials that sprang up across the prairies in the early – mid 1920’s also helped reassure people that their war was good and necessary. They didn’t appear until events such as the Winnipeg General Strike signaled unrest.
Across Canada the “Highways of Heroes” idea, and a general renewed interest in veterans, was a direct result of Canadian involvement in Afghanistan and the fact that many of us opposed it.
Statues aren’t history. They are marketing. Statues erase history. That is their purpose.
**And even if statutes were history – we keep re-writing history as new facts emerge – often facts that where intentionally ignored – so we should be continually be updating statues. Hard to do with bronze – but nothing like engraving a myth in granite to make it last.
They were just products of their times….
No they weren’t. They were the leaders of their times. They wrote the history. That history was often as misleading as the statues.
If we are going to judge people by the standard of the times, the first thing we have to do is know our history. If we think everyone was a racist in 1885, where are we getting that impression? A cursory look at even our school history books will offer plenty of evidence that, of course, millions of people opposed slavery long before the US Civil War. Many Canadians, including the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, opposed the judicially irresponsible conviction and execution of Louis Riel. Many Canadians, including some officials in government, were quite vocal about the injustice and brutality evident in the concept and design of Residential Schools very early on. The list goes on. There were always people who, even by today’s standards, were on the right side of the issue of the day, people who knew better. Even if “everybody was doing it” was a valid excuse, it simply wasn’t always true. The fact that sixty or seventy percent of adults in several US states support Donald Trump doesn’t make them right - today or in the future.
Of course racism was common, to the point of seeming normal. And leaders who used it as a political weapon had popular support. Is it really that different today?
There is a big difference between the average Nova Scotian colonist being a racist and Cornwallis, the agent of a Colonial Power, using, and in fact, manufacturing racist sentiment, to advocate for the extermination of a people in order to facilitate the appropriation of a territory. Racism, and the perpetuation of the thought that the objects of oppression were inferior, evil, and dangerous etc. was the weapon of the power structures.
And here is where I think it gets sensitive. Sometimes tearing down a statue touches a nerve. It seems to call into question the whole concept of colonization, the inherent right of our white, Northern European, Christian, forbearers to “claim” the territory we now call home.
There is a battle going on here. It is about who we are now.
I’m afraid that the efforts to “save” the statues” aren’t about history, or even about the past. It’s about today. So whether we are in South Africa, Alabama, or Saskatchewan, we need to realize that when it comes to “Truth and Reconciliation” we have to start with “Truth”.
Truth is a bit too complicated to put on a statue. Slogans are easy.
Sir John A. MacDonald provides an interesting example.
For many Canadians, it seemed unthinkable to question any part of his role in the westward expansion of Canada. Only recently have historians begun to see it for what it was, the colonization of another people. That isn’t to say that Sir John isn’t a very important figure in Canadian history and that his many contributions should be ignored. The point is that statues of him don’t contribute to an understanding of his role. We figured out some time ago that memorizing the names of the provinces didn’t really help kids understand geography or history. Making sure we all know that he was the “Father of Confederation” doesn’t help us understand the process and the impact.
Does this mean we should tear down all statues that are contentious in any way?
I believe we would lose nothing by destroying them, but that's a debate we should continue to have.
The best idea I've seen is to move them to a museum-like setting where they can be presented in an accurate context.