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The removal of statues of Robert E. Lee in the U.S. may well have been the catalyst for Canada’s discussion on the value of maintaining the myth that Canada’s founding father was a hero but that doesn’t make it any less valid.
Removing or re-homing Lee statuary is a fairly easy decision – or should be. Most of his statues were raised and schools named during the Jim Crow period of racial segregation or in the 1950s as a way of slapping ‘uppity Negroes’ down; continuing to support Lee remaining up there on his high horse (as he is usually depicted) doesn’t have a lot of credibility.
Interesting to me is that while history is often written by the victors, in the case of the Civil War, the losers (Southerners) have written more history books on the subject than the winners and, until recently, dominated the national perception of history. Confederate generals such as Generals Lee and Jackson are generally held in higher esteem than their Union counterparts.
Dealing with the issue of John A. Macdonald isn’t so easy. People are squawking “why now” as if time is sufficient reason to leave John Macdonald’s legacy intact. I think the discussion is happening now because of Canada’s sesquicentennial and the resurfacing of uncomfortable questions surrounding Canada’s creation. This is a debate that’s been a long time coming. If not now, then when?
James Daschuk, in his book Clearing the Plains, writes, “The uncomfortable truth is that modern Canada is founded upon ethnic cleansing and genocide. The loss of Indigenous lives can all be traced directly to the policies of Macdonald’s administration, which were perpetrated in order to clear a path for the railroad and to open the Prairies to white settlement.” I don’t think that is in dispute.
Daschuk also makes the point, “I’ve used this analogy: George Washington was a slave owner, and we can criticize him for that, but George Washington didn’t create slavery.”
Macdonald created the system that “put the boot” to Indigenous peoples for decades, especially during his time as both prime minister and Indigenous affairs minister for nine years after the 1878 election.James Daschuk, from his book “Clearing the Plains”
What seems to be in dispute is the notion that we are “rewriting history” by removing names and statues that honour those who did some very bad things because they did some noble and visionary things too. But the truth is that we have already rewritten history by naming public buildings after an architect of Indigenous genocide. We have already changed our history so maybe it is time to revisit it, correct it and move forward.
History isn’t the dead, static thing we often consider it to be. Far from being ‘dead’, history connects things through time and encourages us to take a long view of such connections in the here and now. We can decide how we honour people and how we condemn them and it can change over time. History evolves just as we do. It comes down to, “when we know better we do better”. We don’t just cover it up and move along because it’s ugly and it forces us to think and to talk about things we’d rather just ignore.
“The revision of previously accepted historical accounts is a constant process in which ‘today’s winners are tomorrow’s losers’, and the rise and fall of present institutions and movements influence the way historians see the past,” reads one philosophical snippet from Wikipedia. So why wouldn’t/shouldn’t our response to a moment in history change?
Historian Sean Carleton wrote that history is always political and never objective, and that while facts are objective, history is not. “We need to remember that both naming and renaming are political things that need debate,” Carleton said in a piece that ran in the Calgary Herald. “Names are not neutral and that’s what I think is somewhat frustrating about the claim that changing the name is erasing history.”
There seems to be this idea that everything has an expiry date. An acquaintance exploded, “Oh my God! This happened hundreds of years ago. ‘These people’ (I assume he meant Indigenous people) need to learn to let things go!” Well, maybe they could if the last residential school had closed in 1886 instead of 1996 and if Native people weren’t still living under the Indian Act. As one Métis writer wrote, Colonization didn’t happen 400 years ago; it began 400 years ago and continues today. Right now.”
Canadians have an opportunity here to educate ourselves and our kids when a school is re-named. I think that even a small child could understand this explanation: “Johnny, your school name celebrated our first prime minster for his role in creating Canada. It is getting a new name because he also did very bad things that hurt First Nations people even today.” That explanation might even make Johnny a better boy and a better man and a better Canadian.
Removing names and monuments is an opportunity to debate the issue fully and honestly. If we just knock things down or rename schools/public spaces without talking about the root issue, which is that the horror of the residential school issue is far from healed, we may never reach the objectives of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Perry Bellegard, National Chief of First Nations, said that he welcomes discussion on the appropriateness of other tributes to Macdonald, adding, “We have a shared history, but we have more importantly a shared future, so let’s build a country on truth and honesty.” Wise words.
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