Main image: A statue of Robert Dundas, son of slave-owner and anti-abolitionist Henry Dundas, in Edinburgh, Scotland, was recently defaced with graffiti. There have been calls in Toronto to rename Dundas St. given its namesake. (Photo: thenational.scot)
I do not think that history is sacred.
To proclaim that it is is to assume that our record is accurate, contextual, and complete.
In high school, I first heard the phrase, “History is written by the winners.” At the time, this axiom was used to explain why certain stories held more weight than others, why some people had a taller platform from which to declare their truth. We were meant to place ourselves squarely on the side of those victors, because how else would we have arrived here in the present?
Over time, one begins to wonder what happened to the so-called losers. Whose stories are missing from the annals of history? Who decides what winning and losing actually means? What happens when those who have stories of victory of their own were never permitted to learn to read or write, when their storytelling was banned? When there’s an agenda, who gets to put it into motion and who gets in the way?
It became obvious that the history I learned about in school consisted of some really sore winners who would do anything to keep others underneath them.
I began to lose trust in the concept of ‘history’. If historians all look the same, speak the same, went to the same schools taught by the same people, read all the same books, and were awarded for staunchly sticking to the status quo, how could it be considered even a fraction of truth, let alone the full story?
If women were not people and black men were 3/5 human, where did that leave the truth of black women? How long have they bitten their tongues on their stories, knowing they couldn’t be considered winners and, knowing their words would not be written down for posterity, not taught in schools, not even heard? That they contained a truth punishable by death.
Everything on Indigenous land that got renamed by white settlers is a lie, yet those names are part of history.
Canada’s active role in genocide, internment, slavery, and oppression has been white-washed by the winners, by those who benefited from it, perpetuated it, thrived because of it. Because there can be no winning without losing. All privilege comes at someone else’s expense.
So white settlers won the ability to mold and forge their versions of events, of history. The truth is too ugly, and doesn’t serve them to tell it, so they spin it. When the losers have no voice and no power, who’s going to argue?
This story, called history, has been told and retold. It’s been challenged, but never usurped.
Now, suddenly, being a name in the history books isn’t enough to ride on. Legacies are being called into question. We are starting to accept that, like an abusive husband cannot be a good father because a good father would never harm his children’s mother, someone who promoted oppressive ideals cannot be a good politician, a good explorer, a good judge, a good town founder.
Monuments are toppling.
In Toronto, there is a ten-thousand signature petition to change the name of Dundas Street. Henry Dundas opposed the abolition of slavery, and his power, as a ‘winner’ delayed the liberation of 630,000 enslaved people. The monument of Dundas, as well as that of his son, Robert, in Edinburgh, Scotland, have been defaced.
Good. Tear it down. Change the names. Change them back to the indigenous words they were, or change them to something new and celebratory of people who fought for the freedom and empowerment of people. Make it right, all of it.
I’m not talking about erasure. We should learn about Dundas in history books, as a Scottish politician who worked against abolition. Tell his story alongside the abolitionists of the time, and not just the non-violent, feel-good, ‘winner’-approved defenders of the innocent. The rebels, the insurrectionists, the radicals. I want those stories told in school books because I want young people, who have a hell of a job ahead of them, to have role models and heroes, revolutionaries to aspire to, people who changed the world for the better—the way they are going to have to.
Students don’t need to memorize places and dates of famous battles, who our enemies were and which ‘heroes’ led soldiers into slaughter. They need to learn how to prevent war, how to stop war, how to survive war, how to recover from war. War should only be taught as a what-not-to-do manual.
There will be growing pains from the world-building we are all participating in right now. We will mess this up. We will have to learn, and grow, and make amends. The goal is not perfection at this point—let’s just commit to not making things any worse.
Change is happening at an unprecedented pace. The global village is sick of being invaded. A better way is inevitable, even if it may get more difficult before it gets better. Conversations that should have happened long ago, ages ago, are happening now, and it’s confronting and scary and beautiful.
When faced with such a monumental challenge, we choose how to react. Do you stand, impassively, arrogantly dictating the ‘truth’, as a statue does? Or do you accept, flow, gather, and act as one, like water in a river, changing the face of the planet forever?
You don’t have to be the one with the chain around the monument, tearing it down. But maybe don’t be in the way.
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Kathleen May is a writer, speaker, and activist. Her column, She Speaks, has appeared in the Huntsville Doppler since 2018. Her work in our community includes co-founding the long-running Huntsville Women’s Group, volunteering with Muskoka Parry Sound Sexual Assault Services, and her role as a front-line counsellor at the women’s shelter. Kathleen is a 2018 Woman of Distinction for Social Activism and Community Development. She was longlisted for the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize, short-listed for the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize, and received the Best Author award for her 2018 submission at the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a fundraiser for literacy services. When she isn’t writing, she’s designing a tiny house which she intends to be the impetus for a sustainable women’s land co-operative in Muskoka.