Earlier this week, Planned Parenthood of Greater New York announced it would remove the name of Margaret Sanger, the organization’s founder and a champion for women’s reproductive rights, from its Manhattan health clinic, because she had embraced eugenics.
Nellie McClung and other members of the Famous Five, pioneers in the fight for women’s rights in Canada, also supported the sterilization of women they considered genetically inferior. Should we remove the monuments to them in Ottawa and across the country?
And if so, who would be next?
Activists protesting racism against the Black and Indigenous communities recently targeted statues of John A. Macdonald and of Egerton Ryerson, a pioneer of public education, for their roles in creating the residential school system.
Macdonald and Ryerson inhabit a pantheon of prejudice. Wilfrid Laurier signed an order to ban Black immigrants, whose “race is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada.” During the First World War, under Robert Borden, Canada interned Ukrainian Canadians as enemy aliens. William Lyon Mackenzie King did the same to Japanese Canadians during the Second World War.
Revered NDP leader Tommy Douglas, the father of Medicare, wasn’t being enlightened-for-his-time when he said in the 1960s that homosexuals shouldn’t be sent to prison because they were mentally ill. His words were offensive to many even then. But people were still being expelled from the military because of their sexuality in the 1980s, on Brian Mulroney’s watch.
So which statues should come down? Who should be removed from the banknotes? Hector Langevin, one of the Fathers of Confederation, had his name erased from what used to be the Langevin Block, across from Parliament Hill, because of his involvement in residential schools. Who else should be cancelled?
The answer, according to Jenn Wallner, a political scientist at University of Ottawa, lies in continuously re-examining the legacies of the past.
“The interpretation of history is fluid and never fixed, and shouldn’t be,” she said in an interview. The mixed legacy of this country’s founding and development “is a conversation that is long overdue in Canada.”
Jonathan Vance, who teaches Canadian history at University of Western Ontario, would keep most of the statues up, while studying and teaching all sides of a prominent figure’s past. “The campaigns to remove statues and rename things” don’t take into account that if you take the statue down then “the lessons they can provide are gone,” he said.
But for professor Debra Thompson, a specialist in the comparative politics of race at McGill University, statues and memorials and plaques speak to a history written by and for those who exercise power over those who don’t.
“It is not neutral, it is not objective, it is one-hundred-per-cent political and as a political act it is therefore infused with power,” she said.
Stephen Henderson, who teaches Canadian history at Acadia University, calls statues “official graffiti.”
“We don’t know our history by statues, we know it by stories,” he says. As we learn more about the impact of the early Canadian state on Indigenous peoples, the story “has to change. You have to accept these things.”
Though Senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, once said that reconciliation “is not about taking names off buildings; it is about whether we can find a way to put Indigenous names on buildings,” that tearing down statues “smacks of revenge or smacks of acts of anger,” when “in reality what we are trying to do is, we are trying to create more balance in the relationship.”
At its best, our incessant need to reconsider the past can help us to understand the present. At its worst, historical revisionism can leave us uprooted, polarized, yelling at each other.
But if history is constantly on trial, then who is the jury? In Canada’s case, the jury may be the many millions of Canadians who have come here over the past several decades from India, China, the Philippines, the Middle East and other parts of the developing world that also experienced colonialism or other forms of imperial oppression.
Their children will dominate Canada’s future. They are breaking down the white-versus-others duality of the historical debate.
These new Canadians will interpret Canada’s history for themselves. They may be the ones who finally decide which statues come down.
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