Pulling Down Statues: Changing History or Starting a Dialogue?

By CHRIS DODD

A good many years before John A. Macdonald’s statue was pulled down from its perch in Montreal’s Dominion Square, my high school history class had a debate on the case of Louis Riel. In real life, Riel stood accused of high treason by the government of John A. Macdonald for the ‘crime’ of resisting the transfer of a Métis settlement to the Canadian government. Our class assignment was called: Riel. Hero or villain?

Riel, as you might remember, went onto become the villain in the real story. He was ordered executed by Macdonald and hung in effigy by my history class, which is regretful, since it was my part of class project to defend him. But what chance would a 15-year-old student have as the defender of minority rights when the only knowledge on the topic was gained from books written by English setters?

As an adult armed with knowledge obtained outside of the education system, it is now tempting to weigh Riel’s ‘crime’ against that of some of North America’s colonizers, whose actions are rarely put to such ‘hero or villain’ scrutiny. Take Christopher Columbus for example, accused of genocide, slavery and torture of the indigenous people of the Caribbean. He is celebrated as a hero in the United States, whose shores he never reached.

George Washington made it to Mount Rushmore despite owning slaves, who some history books prefer to call ‘domestics.’

Canada’s own John A. stands accused of supporting the starvation of First Nations people, instituting the residential school system, and condemning Riel to his death. Hero or villain? Well, when you see his face on your money, and his name on schools, highways, a mountain, and an airport, you know the verdict has been reached.

But there was no ‘hero or villain’ debate in my high school history class about Macdonald, although our teacher did throw in a few ‘fun facts’ about him just to make sure that Canadian history didn’t seem too boring. “Oh sure Macdonald was a drunk,” the teacher joked, and “Macdonald married his cousin too, but both of those things were fairly common in those days.”

“Even our heroes have warts,” our teacher said, a familiar refrain that is still heard today “but Canada needs heroes, and Macdonald built our nation,” so that was the end of the story. If only I could go back in time to ask some very uncomfortable questions about those ‘warts’ and the nation that Macdonald was trying to build. Somehow it was never mentioned in my class that Macdonald was the architect of policies so disturbing and inescapably racist that greater knowledge of this history would undermine Canada’s reputation as a tolerant society.

Macdonald recently joined a growing list of bronzed ‘national heroes’ felled by protesters around the world, from Confederate American leaders like Robert E. Lee to the British slave trade profiteer Edward Coulson.

British PM Boris Johnson accused demonstrators in his country of trying to “…censor our past,” and “impoverish the education of generations to come.” Donald Trump, being the American President who, when asked during a TV interview, was unable to recall the name of a single book he had read, somehow felt privileged to provide lectures on history, saying “We should learn from the history,’ to his partisans on Fox News, “and if you don’t understand your history, you will go back to it again.”

Reaching for the low bar with a more conciliatory tone than Trump, Quebec Premier Francois Legault called the Macdonald toppling unacceptable, but added “Of course we need to fight against racism, but that is not the way to do it…we have to respect the history.”

But this is the same Legault who insisted that systemic racism does not exist in Quebec, although it’s difficult to tell, since one sure symptom of systemic racism is the steadfast refusal to acknowledge it. But the ability to express such surefooted opinions on racism from those unlikely to experience it is a Canada-wide phenomenon, starting with education systems that entrench ideas about the British and French ‘founding’ of Canada at the expense of other perspectives. That is what makes Macdonald a hero and Riel the villain. It is also what makes these men lecturing about the need to respect history absurdly hypercritical.

Behind much of the ‘history’ of Canada is the uncomfortable truth that the original plan for Canada was as the North American version of 19th century Britain, designated one of the ‘White Dominions,’ a not so subtle way to distinguish Canadians from others in their global Empire that needed to be ‘colonised’ and ‘civilized.’ Canada’s First Nations stood in the way of that vision, especially since they held valuable land and incompatible cultural values.

The problem with not learning much of this in school and having to find it out for yourself (along with topics such as the existence of slavery in Canada, the wartime internment of Japanese Canadians, the segregation of racial groups on undesirable land such as Halifax’s Africville, the imposition Chinese head tax, and so much more) is that a large part of the population will never know much about them. The sad part about erasing parts of the past that don’t suit the dominant narrative is that it contributes to the ongoing marginalisation of non-White people in the country — in the present.

Still, it is an open question whether dismantling statues is the best way to reclaim history by those left out of it, or as an effective way to protest against racial inequality. Well, actually no, that question is already settled. Macdonald’s downfall has been universally denounced by the press and has provided red meat for the culture war. Such acts are referred to as ‘thuggery’ by some right-wing commentators. The latest example of ‘cancel culture,’ others cry. “An angry mob out to steal ‘your’ history and culture to impose their own,” shout many social media posts.

But how is it not also considered ‘cancel culture’ when the lack of diverse voices in Canada’s mainstream media means that popular opinion is often reflective of that same narrow range of views? Meanwhile, the history, struggles and accomplishments of minorities are minimalised, or even ignored.

These commentators should consider it a privilege not to have been subjected to the ‘cultural genocide’ of the residential schools system. The victims of that system might walk past a statue that reminds them that the country that ignores their history also honours a man who called their people ‘savages’ who ‘must be removed from their parental influence to acquire the habits and modes of White men.’ Is that not also part of the history we have to respect, M. Legault?

We can also question Prime Minister Trudeau’s reaction, saying that such acts of ‘vandalism’ are “…not advancing the path towards greater justice and equality in this country.” But how many concrete achievements toward these goals have been ticked off by the Trudeau government in its five years in office, to match all the talk about the strength of Canada’s diversity and reconciliation with its First Nations?

Action is what happens when people get tired of such talk. Marginalised groups turn to desperation only after they talk about their experiences and notice few people listening.

History has not been changed by pulling down statues of racists. But doing so opens a window for dialogue about history that would otherwise not take place. Such drastic action is often ‘plan B,’ as it is often said. Many other ways of raising awareness about issues of social injustice have been tried. But how has that been working out?

Featured Image: Still from CBC News Video

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