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Peter Shawn Taylor (Globe and Mail Update)
Peter Shawn Taylor (Globe and Mail Update)

Peter Shawn Taylor

Langevin, Ryerson, Cornwallis: Is our past unfit for the present? Add to ...

Peter Shawn Taylor is editor-at-large of Maclean’s magazine.

Hector-Louis Langevin is gone. So too, Matthew Baillie Begbie. And Edward Cornwallis, Jeffery Amherst and Egerton Ryerson may be living on borrowed time. These once-esteemed Canadian historical figures have either had their names and likenesses ripped from the firmament or are in immediate danger thereof, because of conflict between historical facts and current sensitivities.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau removed Mr. Langevin’s name from the building that houses his office in Ottawa last month because some claim he was an architect of Canada’s notorious residential school system. A statue of Mr. Begbie, the first chief justice of British Columbia, was hoisted out of the lobby of the Law Society of British Columbia earlier this year because he sentenced six Indigenous chiefs to death in 1864. The legacies of Mr. Cornwallis, Mr. Amherst and Mr. Ryerson are similarly threatened by allegations they were mortal enemies of Indigenous peoples or associated with residential schools.

While clearly growing in fashion, the rename or remove movement is troublesomely ad hoc – decisions appear based solely on political calculation and the heat generated by social media. In Halifax, for example, a Facebook campaign calls on supporters to “peacefully remove” a prominent statue of Mr. Cornwallis, the city’s founder, in guerrilla fashion.

But with nearly every major Canadian historical figure somehow implicated in our country’s often-shameful treatment of Indigenous peoples, we need a better way to decide which parts of our past are truly unfit for present-day consumption. Consider the Witt test.

Yale University has long wrestled with similar complaints about Calhoun College, named for benefactor John C. Calhoun, a U.S. senator from South Carolina and outspoken proponent of slavery during the pre-Civil War era. Last year, Yale asked historian John Fabian Witt to resolve the controversy. His response was a unique series of questions meant to gauge the validity of renaming demands. It’s a first stab at a coherent, standardized system for settling commemoration disputes, and other U.S. institutions have quickly grasped its significance. Last month, the University of Mississippi employed Prof. Witt’s test in removing some controversial names from its campus, while letting other remain. In the absence of anything similar in Canada, we should adopt the Witt test to settle our own namesake dilemmas.

Prof. Witt begins with the overarching principle that name changes should be considered “exceptional events” and not frivolous or political acts. “Renaming has often reflected excessive confidence in moral orthodoxies,” he observes, pointing with caution to the Soviet Union. Then again, not every urge to rename is Orwellian: post-Apartheid South Africa or post-Nazi West Germany, for example.

To decide what deserves to be removed and what should stay, the Witt test applies four questions, modified here for domestic use, that weigh the actions and time periods of commemorated individuals.

  • First: Is the principal legacy of the namesake fundamentally at odds with Canadian values? This requires a broad understanding of the life’s work of the individual in question.
  • Second: Was the relevant principal legacy significantly contested during the namesake’s lifetime? Isolated statements or actions considered controversial today may have been conventional wisdom at the time. Context matters.
  • Third: At the time of the naming, was the namesake honoured for reasons fundamentally at odds with Canadian values? Why was this person commemorated?
  • Finally: Does the building play a substantial role in forming community? The more prominent the edifice, the greater the casefor retaining names of historical significance, Prof. Witt says.

Using the Witt test, Yale announced in February the removal of Mr. Calhoun’s name. White supremacy, it concluded, was his principal legacy. Mr. Calhoun claimed slavery was “a positive good” and that the Declaration of Independence erred in stating all men are created equal. For this, he was criticized in his own time and today.

Applying these same standards to Mr. Langevin, however, yields a different result. As an important French-Catholic Conservative federalist in the Confederation era, Mr. Langevin’s principal legacy was building a bicultural Canada, something once considered a great virtue in this country. This is why his name was placed on an important building in Ottawa. Though his name is today often paired with residential schools, Mr. Langevin was primarily involved with constructing the buildings, not championing the policies. The infamous speech he gave in Parliament on the subject was actually parroting what his boss – Sir John A. Macdonald – had said days earlier. While his comments are grating to modern ears, he was merely repeating widely accepted views from his time. The Witt test exonerates Mr. Langevin.

The legacies of Mr. Begbie, Mr. Ryerson, Mr. Cornwallis and the rest of Canada’s historically accused deserve a fair trial as well.

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