There is a saying about being careful of meeting your idols. Chances are, you’ll be disappointed, that when you look beyond the things you love them for, you’ll find warts of character and actions.
Usually, when we’re confronted with criticisms of our idols, we react angrily, unreasonably. Oh, I don’t mind being wrong about a policy or who said what to whom, but tell me that one of my idols was a jerk? Dem’s fightin’ words!
We are an idol society. We love to put people on pedestals. Oprah is the wisest woman in the world. She gets me. Donald Trump loves America, shoots from the hip and tells it like it is. Ken Dryden is one of the best goalies ever, brilliant, and a wonderful human being! (okay, that last one is me saying it but, damn it, he’s a great guy!)
The choice with some monuments are obvious.
Pulling down Saddam Hussein’s statue after the Iraq war? Sure. He was a brutal dictator who gassed his own citizens.
In the U.S., confederate leaders were fighting to keep slavery, that is what the civil war was about, so taking down those memorials should be a no-brainer. It isn’t though. A considerable segment of people in the U.S. south still laments the defeat and considers black people to be inferior and dangerous.
Here in Canada, we have calls for some of our monuments to come down, the most contentious, of course, being statues of our first and long-time Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald. Macdonald is considered the “father of our country” for getting all of the colonies/provinces on board and being the architect of the national railway that secured our coast to coast territory that might have otherwise been split up.
Unfortunately, Macdonald’s tactics in building the railway and his treatment of the country’s indigenous people were ghastly. According to a recent article in the National Post, even in the context of the time, Macdonald “pursued an indigenous policy so draconian that even his contemporaries accused him of going beyond the pale.” Macdonald’s edicts included a campaign of starvation and attrition, the public hangings of the Red River Rebellion, and the creation of residential schools.
It should be noted that Macdonald’s racist policies were not confined to Indigenous people. He also imposed a head tax on Chinese immigrants and once told the Commons that the Chinese should not be given a vote because Canada’s “Aryan nature” could be upset by a “mongrel race” formed by the breeding of whites and Asians.
Still, despite all that, I have mixed emotions on the matter.
Generally, I believe that monuments of evil people, people who did or advocated for horrible things, crimes against humanity, should be brought down. I don’t buy the argument that this would be “destroying history” because a monument is just a speck of history. History is spoken, told by people. It’s in books and on film. Nobody gets a better understanding of history by looking at a statue that paints the figure in the noblest light.
This all said, is it fair to judge Macdonald on his indigenous policies when it was essentially the same everywhere, where colonizers were seizing lands and racism was the norm? Is it fair to single him out since whoever was PM at the time would have likely done the same?
Ultimately, I think we must fall back on the wishes of those who were hurt and who are offended. Macdonald was the main architect of the decimation of indigenous tribes and the abusive residential school system that stripped a people of their culture and dignity. If paying homage to him is an affront to those people, their wishes should be honored. Their pain is real. The offense they take is real. It’s the same as someone who has worn an Indian costume or used the term “Jew’d me down in price.” Many people who did that did not hate indigenous people or Jews, and now that they know better, they don’t do it.
The push-back on this idea is coming mostly from white, “old stock” Canadians, who are always fearful of dramatic changes, particularly anything that threatens the power structures that they have benefited from for centuries. Most of Canada’s statues, monuments and buildings are not just reminders of white Canada and its dominance, but tributes to it.
What it comes down to is the truth, and does it matter to us? I think it should.
If Canadians are serious about reconciliation, they should be taking more concrete steps to “indigenize” our cities, the way Vancouver is with the renaming of places and buildings, and remodeling places to recognize the area’s first inhabitants. Literal changes, ones you can see and touch every day, really do help advance systemic changes.
We cannot be patient. We have been patient enough. We need to strike while the iron is hot and keep pushing for these changes, or the movement becomes just another passing fad, a flare-up, and we slide back to where we were … again. And we may find ourselves in a similar situation to what is happening in the States, where its old guard and a resurgent army of racists has become energized and is pushing back to the point where violence seems inevitable.