Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Evil That Men Do

That wind is blowing up from the South. Ontario's elementary teachers want to remove John A. Macdonald's name from public schools in the province. The issue is Macdonald's treatment of native peoples -- more particularly the role he played in setting up the residential school system. Tom Walkom writes that, if Macdonald's name is erased from public institutions, the names of several prime ministers will also have to be expunged:

Wilfrid Laurier, the Liberal prime minister whose government famously urged Eastern European “men in sheepskin coats” to settle the West, was in the broadest sense pro-immigration. But he also did his best to keep the Chinese out of Canada.

William Lyon Mackenzie King, the long-serving prime minister who steered Canada through the Second World War was, in the mid-1930s, a secret fan of Adolph Hitler’s labour relations policies.

Under King, Canada was extremely reluctant to take in Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler.
J.S. Woodsworth, the first leader of what is now the New Democratic Party, was a fierce advocate of workers’ rights. But his 1909 book on immigration, Strangers Within our Gates, uses race-based language that would get him expelled from today’s NDP.

Robert Borden is generally regarded as a nation-builder who steered Canada through the First World War and into international prominence. But he can also be seen as a nation-buster, whose decision to introduce conscription fanned animosity between English and French Canada.

Even modern politicians are complicated. Pierre Trudeau was at one level a civil libertarian whose efforts led to Canada’s constitutionally entrenched charter of rights and freedoms.
Yet he was also the man who, during the FLQ crisis of 1970, casually suspended civil rights, a move that led to the arrest without charge of almost 500 innocent people.

The problem is -- and it has always been -- that  public figures are deeply flawed. If we are to remember them, they must be remembered warts and all. Given the standard which is being set here and to the south, very few people would pass muster with succeeding generations. Marc Antony was right: "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones."

Remembering what we did wrong is no excuse for not recalling what we did right. That rule applies to all of us -- public figures and the least among us.

Image: Pinterest


Lorne said...

Well-said, Owen. I know this is a thorny issue for many, but your statement ("The problem is -- and it has always been -- that public figures are deeply flawed. If we are to remember them, they must be remembered warts and all.") is, as Marc Anthony said at Caesar's funeral, "Right on."

Owen Gray said...

Marc Antony always struck me as a man of his times, Lorne.

The Mound of Sound said...

I instinctively recoil from these "flavour of the month" movements, especially when they spring out of events elsewhere. Kinsella wrote a piece recently in which he contended that Canada is about as racist as the States. Strong talk coming from a pampered white boy who has never had the black experience of walking a little too slow down the sidewalk of a town in the Deep South. Then again he is touting his latest book.

There's a real difference between a statue of Sir John A. and the Confederate statues in the U.S. Our statues don't perpetuate something as odious as the era of slavery or the Civil War it sparked. We have no equivalent to the rebel flags that adorn everything from pickup trucks to city halls and state houses in the American south. These statues and flags are embodied in the powerful racism that still lives in much of the U.S. They perpetuate racism of the worst sort. A statue of John A. Macdonald perpetuates nothing of the sort.

Rural said...

If we erase past history both good and bad how then do our future citizens learn from our triumphs and mistakes. History teaches us much and must not be forgotten, such names on our schools and public buildings are an excellent lead in to learning moments, to use a phrase recently in the news "Less we forget".

the salamander said...

.. these 'issues' or perspectives ..
reflecting what makes us 'Canadian'
require very careful 'sounding' ..

Despite my standing as a senior
who has lived and worked across Canada ..
and comes from 5 or 6 generations of Irish stock
I don't believe I represent or speak for Canadians ..
any more than a 3 year old immigrant from wherever..

This is the key..
& for my son.. he must further an abstract ideal..
So far, so good from my POV
He 'get's it' .. perhaps even better then I ..
and I expect he will soon enter the warzone
against those who would destroy the environment..

Owen Gray said...

I think there may be something to the argument that some statues belong in a museum rather than a public space, Mound. Germany, I'm told, has put its Third Reich statues in museums. Still, I'm bothered by what appears to me to be an attempt to erase history. Better to have two versions of the same event -- like the Battle of the Plains of Abraham from an English and French Canadian perspective -- than an attempt to dismiss the event.

Owen Gray said...

I concur wholeheartedly, Rural. If history records a mistake, the mistake should be studied.

Owen Gray said...

That's precisely the error which is so easy to repeat, salamander -- that "I" speak for the country.

Anonymous said...

Naming things after people, especially politicians, is inherently political and you'll always get complaints. While my neighbour would welcome a Stephen J. Harper Collegiate down the road, I would not.

The problem becomes worse with things named after historical figures. Historical facts don't change much, but society's attitude towards them often does. Renaming things or removing old statues doesn't change history, or prevent citizens from learning about our triumphs and mistakes. Statues and building names make a negligible contribution to learning history compared to books, documentaries, the internet and so on.

I'd be just fine if we got took down all public statues of people and renamed all public buildings named after people. Put the statues in an art gallery or auction them off. I don't see why buildings can't simply be named for their location. The names Billy Bishop Airport or Pearson International Airport give little useful information. Most people in New York, which is an hour's flight away, would have no clue where they are. Call them Toronto Island Airport and Toronto International Airport, and all of a sudden we're communicating.


Owen Gray said...

If a name is a place rather than a person, Cap, life gets simpler. The Canada Navy names its ships after places rather than people.

BJ Bjornson said...

As Mound noted, there are two different issues at work here. The Confederate memorials in the U.S. were built as monuments to white supremacy and to idolize traitors who fought to defend it and slavery. That is what the people being memorialized are known for, and that is often the expressly stated purpose of the people who built the monuments themselves.

Macdonald, and his U.S. counterparts like Jefferson and Washington, while not necessarily paragons of virtue, generally aren’t being memorialized for the less ethical and savoury parts of their lives, but for things that remain laudable in the here and now. Recognizing their failings is still important, but there is at least an argument to be made for honouring their achievements, unlike the traitors and white supremacists of the Confederacy. (That said, I can certainly understand that were I of First Nations descent, I might have a very different viewpoint on whether or not Macdonald’s legacy is overall one worth honouring.)

In any case, I can’t help but feel that there is a very deliberate push to try and conflate the two very different types of monuments so as to make the Confederate ones appear more worthy of preservation than they actually are.

Owen Gray said...

I agree, BJ. The historical situations are different in Canada and the United States. I can see Confederate statues in a museum. This is yet another issue which divides the United States. They've never really taken Lincoln's wish seriously: "With malice toward none, with charity for all . . ."