As a former history teacher and concerned citizen, I have watched with interest the ongoing debate regarding the removal of statues and changing of building names of controversial historical figures.
Like so many others, I question if this is really the best approach of dealing with matters. After all, good or bad, history is history, and erasing references to the past is neither easy nor wise. I am certainly not proposing that we should ignore the wrongdoings of former leaders, in fact, just the opposite. We need to better educate society. But removing statues does not erase our past, it only hides it.
A few years ago I visited a concentration camp in Dachau, Germany. It was here that SS guards were trained to carry out the horrendous actions of the Holocaust. The guide told us that German students were taught about those darkest days in their country’s history and visited the camps (which obviously have not been destroyed). I couldn’t help but admire the Germans for not hiding from their past wrongdoings, but taking the opportunity to teach their young about it. Here was an example of learning from past mistakes in hopes of never repeating such an atrocity.
I question the decision by the mayor and city council of Victoria who have had a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald, our nation’s first prime minister, removed. Although he must be held accountable for his role in establishing residential schools, he also had the foresight to bring British Columbia into Confederation. Sir John A was instrumental in the construction of a transcontinental railway which provided a visible border and thwarted any American expansion northward. Our first prime minister also saw the need for a police force which would protect the indigenous inhabitants from unscrupulous whiskey traders and thus the North West Mounted Police was created.
Does this latest action also suggest that the city of Victoria might be considering changing its name? After all, Queen Victoria, enlightened as she was about many things, did create added cruel hardship for the Irish people when she knowingly blocked the Turkish sultan from providing food to the starving masses during the Irish Famine. Are we now going to erase her memory?
And the controversy doesn’t stop with her. Christopher Columbus might have sailed the ocean blue in 1492, but he also started the slave trade. Winston Churchill inspired his country to persevere during the Second World War, but some of his comments suggest he had racist attitudes. Former Saskatchewan premier Tommy Douglas, voted as our nation’s greatest Canadian because of his role in introducing medicare, is also not without controversy. Douglas wrote a thesis in which he proposed the sterilization and segregation of people with “sub-normal” intelligence.
All of these are reprehensible actions, but if anything, it shows that like anyone else, these figures were human who had their flaws and frailties. Removing visible signs of their role in society does not change what they did, it only masks it.
What we need to do is a better job of preserving history and teaching more of our country’s history to our youth. The truth, good and bad, needs to be acknowledged. Then, and only then, can we move forward with the intent of doing better.