Thursday, August 23, 2018

Statues, History, and Whitewash

Statues and monuments have been in the news in Eastern Europe, United States and now Canada.

In Eastern Europe, counties of the former Soviet Union or members of the Warsaw Pact are ridding themselves of statues of Lenin and Soviet war memorials, changing the Soviet names of cities, towns, and streets. This, of course, infuriates Russia as it sees its influence slipping away. They claim it is "changing history". They should be "eternally grateful for the Soviet Army saving them from the Nazis". Essentially they just exchanged one set of butchers for another so the actions of these counties who feel the statues and monuments are just rubbing their face into it are understandable. Put some of them in museums as part of displays that explain what really happened. Destroy the rest.

There is a revolt in America against statues of Confederate "heroes" and attempts to pull them down have met with varying degrees of success. The bulk of them were put up at the beginning of Jim Crow or during the Civil Rights movement of the 50's and 60's. They were there to remind Blacks that Whites were the master race and would keep them subjugated as long as possible in as many ways as available. Read about this dedication speech. But the cries of "politically correct" and "changing history" are heard often.  Some states have laws against removing them, guess which states. They need to be torn down and some put in museums as part of displays about Slavery, Jim Crow and |Civil Rights so people learn the truth, not just the version they were taught in school or fed on White Supremacy websites.

One of the scare tactics used by White Supremacists in support of keeping the Confederate Statues is that the politically correct class will come after statues of the Founding Father's next because they owned slaves. This is willful ignorance if they cannot distinguish between honouring the founders of a great nation vs honouring traitors. Now if there is a statue somewhere raised to honour a founding father BECAUSE he had slaves the sooner it is gone the better.

(American friends, do I understand this or am I oversimplifying?)

Ken Monkman - The Scream

Which brings us to Canada and Sir John A MacDonald, specifically. Sir John A was one of the Fathers of Confederation, Canada's first Prime Minister, and built the transcontinental railway. For that reason, he is revered in Canadian school books and there are statues of him in several cities, including Regina. Ours was installed in 1967 in honour of Canada's 100th birthday. We sort of knew he was no statesman, more of a sleazy politician with a fondness for booze and scandals involving using election funds for bribery.

Now we learn he was an overt racist, opposed to any people who were not White European, in particular, Chinese and further, while he helped found a nation he had no place in it for the indigenous people. He broke treaties, starved thousands of First Nations on reserves and was instrumental in setting up the residential schools. Tragedy doesn't begin to describe the Residential Schools where children were torn away from their parents, forced to give up language and culture and "assimilate" and were subject to physical, mental and sexual abuse. Many thousands died and are buried in unmarked graves. the survivors carry the scars and have passed their trauma down the generations. It is best referred to as Ethnic Cleansing and Cultural Genocide.

The statues of Sir John A are seen by First Nations people as rubbing their faces in the racism that MacDonald created as he established the relationship between Canada and First Nations. Especially in Saskatchewan but I suspect in every province where indigenous people were subjected to Residential Schools. The statues have to go, except perhaps in Ottawa. And his name removed from schools and other public buildings, along with all others named after people who were instrumental in the Residential Schools. Regina has already taken steps in that direction by renaming Davin School.

Nicholas Davin was sent by Ottawa to study the American Industrial Schools and came back with recommendations that Canada should imitate them. Davin School was opened in 1929. It was not likely named after him for the "Davin Report" but it was his claim to fame.

Some would argue that "everybody was doing it" but that breaks down as there were people who knew right from wrong and spoke against it. There were alternatives. Some call this "whitewashing" history but then some people have always had problems with definitions. Removing or renaming is not whitewashing; whitewashing is what we have been doing for generations in hiding the truth and pretending it never happened. History books must begin to include the ugly side of Canadian history. Students in renamed schools could get a special lesson on why the school was renamed eg that presents both sides of Nicholas Davin.

No person in history is without flaws but we need to weigh the flaws against the other achievements, decide when, where, how, or even IF, that person should be honoured.  And teach Canadian history warts and all.


  1. That's a very powerful painting by Ken Monkman. I have no trouble taking down statues, renaming buildings, etc. History marches onward and upward, if we are lucky. We are a different and hopefully better society than a hundred years ago. The real problem underlying this dilemma today is our erroneous "great man of history" viewpoint. We should not honour individuals because individuals do not make history -- people as a whole do. Statues and buildings should commemorate events, not people.

    1. "Statues and buildings should commemorate events, not people." I agree totally. One of the reasons people (white Conservatives?)are opposing all this is that they are now no longer in control of the message.

    2. The same thing happened in Alaska when the U.S. became owner. The government named a Presbyterian minister named Sheldon Jackson head of Native Education in Alaska. He established religious boarding schools and forcefully removed children from their villages - he mixed cultures together that were enemies, punished the children if they spoke their Native language, forced Christianity on them and tried to make them little white clones. As a result whole generations lost their language and cultural relevance. There is still resentment to this day in the villages.

    3. The Russians did the same with the Tuvinians after Stalin annexed the Republic in the 30s. Results much the same as with our First Nations, poverty, violence, alcohol and drugs. The Kremlin is even now working to destroy the languages of all their minority groups though they are getting strong push back. Every country seems to hate its minorities.

    4. Yet, there clearly are "great men [and women] of history." What if, during the Great Depression and WWII, instead of having a leader like Roosevelt, the president of America had been the likes of Donald Trump? I think your mistake is like that of saying that individual words don't matter but language does. Of course, "great men" also matter in a bad way, eg Hitler and Stalin.

  2. By taking down statues and renaming buildings, we can't change history. What happened, happened. If you want to take a statue down, do it, but it won't make any difference to history.
    And the idea of naming arenas, airports, schools, public buildings etc after prominent people always carries the risk of some discrediting news about that person being discovered at a later date.

    1. It will not change history but it will change the future by recognizing what that history really was and by no longer honouring someone whose behaviour was dishonourable. How do you feel about statues of Hitler, Lenin, Stalin? How would you feel about a statue of Churchill in India?
      Yes, naming a building or a street always carries that risk. But it can also be fixed if it happens.

  3. I don't think you're oversimplying in regard to America, although the lines are not clearly drawn between the kind of people who support keeping the statues and the ones who want them taken down. There is also a difference between statues intended to glorify and those means to commemorate. An example of the former might be a grandiose statue of Lee, and of the latter, a modest statue of a generic Confederate statue. By the way, Lee opposed the erection of statues in the former category.

  4. Are you back in Ukraine yet? And how is the interior plumbing these days? Hope you are OK.


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