In an “us” vs. “them” society, fault lines abound. Statues of historical figures are just one of many topics of division.
Most notably associated with monuments to the Confederacy in the U.S., the statue debate is not foreign to Canada. Just now, there are debates over the toppling and beheading of a representation of Sir John A. Macdonald in Montreal, a statue that’s been vandalized many times over the years, though often in relation to the sovereignty issue.
Locally, we’ve seen that debate play out over our own statue of Canada’s first prime minister, as well as other political figures.
Debate is healthy. Vandalism less so. Most troubling is the prospect of revising history.
There is, of course, a difference between tearing down a statue of Macdonald than, say, Gen. Robert E. Lee. The former was a principal founder of the country and its first prime minister. The latter led a traitorous rebellion against his country in defence of slavery, later used as a symbol of racial oppression.
Certainly Macdonald was no saint. But he was a man of his times – it’s a dangerous idea to attempt to blot from history people and actions that don’t adhere to today’s standards. Macdonald was democratically chosen to lead the country, acting with legal authority, though today’s version of democracy is certainly more inclusive than was the one under which Canadians lived back then.
In the U.S., statues of figures such as Lee and Stonewall Jackson are divisive, not only as reminders of a war synonymous with attempts to retain slavery, but as ongoing symbols of white supremacist movements.
Moreover, many of the statues were installed not in the aftermath of the war, but later in a clear attempt to show who had the upper hand in segregation matters that flourished early in the following century. There was a concerted effort to raise such statues years after the U.S. Civil War as an implicit threat against Blacks seeking wider civil rights.
Thus removing the statues isn’t simply an Orwellian attempt to erase history, though you don’t see similar historical markers for the vanquished of other wars (say, Nazi Germany). Instead, the idea is to undo what was done largely to be divisive, to serve as very visible reminders of some unsavoury policies and opinions.
In that same vein, there is no direct comparison to tearing down likenesses of Macdonald to the toppling of statues of dictators such as Lenin, Hitler, Stalin and, more recently, Saddam Hussein. They and a long list of other leaders often came to power unlawfully, carried out atrocities intentionally and terrorized their own people to retain their positions. Upon overthrowing such tyrants, people were right to destroy such symbols, erected as propaganda tools and to engender fear.
That’s where perspective comes into play, along with a sense of history. The latter would warn us of the dangers of judging the past using only today’s information and sensibility. That’s not to say one simply glosses over the past, but does allow for rational people in the States to avoid equating Lee, Jackson and confederacy president Jefferson Davis with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and others who held what are considered unsavoury opinions today and who acted on them, even owning slaves.
They were of their time, with the ones worth celebrating perhaps attempting to better the status quo.
Given Canada’s history, it’s an even bigger stretch to cast the likes of Macdonald and Wilfrid Laurier as villains.
That’s not say there’s nothing to be learned from an unvarnished look at historical figures – the actions of every European explorer in the New World, for instance, should horrify us, even more so given that the fallout of colonialism and racism are apparent to this very day.
That said, we can be sure that the people of a century or two from now are likely to judge us by still different standards, and the verdict could be harsh.