Across Canada we find statues, universities, schools, libraries, streets, parks, plazas, and other marks of honour named after a host of seemingly important dead white men. John A Macdonald, the first Prime Minister of Canada; Edward Cornwallis, founder of the city of Halifax; and Sir Hector-Louis Langevin, a Canadian lawyer and one of the Fathers of Confederation are three such men deemed important enough to have their names adorned on institutions and public works across the country. Of course there are a host of others who are also used prominently throughout the country. Some of these historic figures were politicians who promoted and established many of the anti-human policies of the government of Canada. For example: John A Macdonald also brought in the Chinese Head Tax (1885), did not follow through with treaty promises and persecuted Indigenous and Métis peoples; and was responsible for the establishment of the residential school system in Canada. Edward Cornwallis also issued the so-called 'scalping proclamation' offering to pay people who would go out and kill Mi'kmaq (First Nation) people to clear the path for colonization. Lastly, Sir Hector-Louis Langevin is considered the architect of the residential school system in Canada. In their era their racist laws and policies were often justified as ‘progress’, ‘the will of god’, ‘civilizing’, and keeping Canada an “Anglo-Saxon race” nation. (It is important to note that at various times in Canada’s history groups that would today be considered “white” were considered a different race to protestant Anglo-Saxons, this included: Irish people, Ukrainian people, Jewish people, etc.) All of these laws were deemed necessary in the establishment of the settler-colonial nation known today as Canada.
However, as their roles in history become further exposed to the public by the media, community organizations, historians, academics, activists, etc. Canada is opening an important discussion about whether or not publicly funded institutions should continue to hold the names of these people. Do they deserve to have their supposed positive accomplishments highlighted, when the accomplishments were at the expense of the livelihood, culture, and lives of others?
This debate exploded into Canada’s consciousness this year as the country marked 150 years since its founding on July 1, 1867. It grabbed headlines again in August with the pro-Nazi rally in favor of keeping a confederate statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., and also when the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario passed a motion supporting the renaming of schools and buildings named after Sir John A. Macdonald in all school districts in Ontario. The motion calls Macdonald the “architect of genocide against Indigenous Peoples.”
Canada’s genocidal policies against Indigenous people
The United Nations “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” definition of genocide reads, “In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: 1-Killing members of the group; 2-Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; 3-Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; 4-Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
When one reads this definition the ongoing “debate” about whether or not the government’s residential school system was a genocidal campaign against Indigenous people, becomes less of a debate, and more just denial. The government’s speeches, documents and law all demonstrate that the residential school system and policy of assimilation against Indigenous people was deliberately “calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,” and also involved the forcible transfer of “children of the group to another group.” We should stop debating the term genocide, and not try to mask Canada’s history. For example the term “cultural genocide” (which is not an internationally recognized term) is often used to dilute or soften the severity of the crimes perpetrated by the government of Canada against Indigenous people. The policies of the government of Canada were genocidal, yet Canada is not ready to stomach or admit to this objective fact, which is obvious as well in the debate over statues and renaming.
Canada’s history has been contested by various marginalized groups throughout its 150 years, from the Quebecois, to women, to people of Asian descent, to people of African descent, to queer people, to First Nations, to Métis people, to Inuit people, and others. Over the past 20 years or so, these groups have been working to force the government to apologize for many injustices, and some have had a certain amount of success. The government of Canada has officially apologized for: residential schools, the Chinese head tax, the internment of Japanese-Canadians in WWII, the Komagata Maru incident, the forced relocation of the Inuit, and others. Most recently the government announced it will soon apologize for historic injustices against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans people in Canada. These apologies are very popular at the moment. They rarely have compensation attached to them, or do much to support the affected community, but it makes a good news story and good press for the government. At the same time, these apologies have never come easy – thousands of people across Canada have been protesting, petitioning, letter-writing, and demanding these apologies as the government does not like to recognize its role in past and ongoing injustices.
Canada it’s time for change
While unions are passing motions and activists are protesting many statues across Canada – from Macdonald in Victoria, BC to Cornwallis in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Jon Tattrie, the author of Cornwallis: the violent birth of Halifax, explained to CTV news, "shouldn't our publicly funded art be about education and not about propaganda from one point of view?” Meaning, the statues of all of these dead white men are not politically neutral. They come with an ingrained ideology about who ‘built’ the nation of Canada. While those who disagree argue that renaming places or tearing down statues represents a current cultural bias, the fact that women, people of colour, and especially Indigenous people are so under represented also represents a bias, as pointed out by Tatterie.
On August 2, 2017 these discussions were reflected on CBC's weekly call-in show Cross-Country Check-up. Host Duncan McCue explained some of the statues and renaming being discussed and debated in cities and communities across Canada. However, as most discussions on this issue it eventually do, he asks the question, "where do we draw the line?"
While it is a question, and seems to be opening a discussion. This question/statement is often used to stop discussion, it is meant to protect the status-quo.
No one would argue to keep a statue of Adolf Hilter or think their children should attend Osama Bin Laden Secondary School, and if you proposed tearing down the statue of either of those, universally hated figures, no one would bother to ask, ‘but where do we draw the line?’
Yet, when it comes to Macdonald, Cornwallis, and Langevin who either preached whole-sale slaughter or the genocidal assimilation of Indigenous people, some say things like ‘but we cannot forget our history’. A quick reminder, history is not taught by statues and having a name stamped on a park or school, history is learned in classrooms, books, newspaper, etc. On the other hand, statues, monuments, parks and other public spaces and works are usually named in ceremonies to mark people we have deemed important and respectful enough to celebrate. Macdonald, Cornwallis, and Langevin are not those people.
Some might also argue that renaming does not solve the economic and social issues caused by the unjust policies of the government of Canada. That is correct. Howver, by opening this critical thinking and discussion about who our society should commemorate and celebrate, we engage working and oppressed people in a dialogue about the impact and repercussion of politics. If we do not get involved in making basic change and make this more superficial aspect of society more equal and representative, how are we going to convince people of the importance and need for fundamental changes?
Some International inspiration
In the United States many monuments and statues of proponents of the confederate army, who fought to keep slavery legal, are being torn down across the country. In Caracas, Venezuela in 2004 they tore down the statue of Christopher Columbus and renamed “Columbus Day” as “the Day of Indigenous Resistance”. In Paraguay a statue of the former dictator General Alfredo Stroessner was disassembled from something honourable into a pile of bones encased in cement – they kept the statue, but in a more fitting way for that man and his legacy.
When we stop asking questions like, ‘but where do we draw the line?’ and start asking instead questions like: Who do we want to honour? What moments or events deserve to be commemorated? How do we create monuments about injustice? How do we create monuments that reflect the society we have become and wish to be? Then we will have a better idea. If there are some private collectors who want to preserve statues of John A Macdonald, let them have them! Once we establish that we are not interested to celebrate these historic figures in our public spaces, the possibilities for reclamation, transformation, and empowerment are infinite.
Follow Tamara Hansen on Twitter: @THans01
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