Do We Really Want to Erase History?

A commentary on how to handle controversial historical figures.

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It seems there is a call for us North Americans to take another look at our history. That is a good thing. As a retired Social Studies and history teacher, I emphasized to my students that history is NOT fact since it is past events that have been interpreted by historians. In other words, historians analyze past events whereby they use diaries, archeological artifacts, and so on, to determine what happened. This is not without their biases and beliefs, or as Napoléon Bonaparte once allegedly said, “History is a set of lies agreed upon.” History is a historian’s interpretation of the past.

In  the United States many people are calling for long-standing monuments that honour confederate generals to be removed. A similar debate is also developing in Canada involving the country’s first prime minister (PM), Sir. John A MacDonald. Canada’s first PM was one of our more colourful politicians as he was a notorious drinker. It is well documented that MacDonald was a regular binge drinker.

I first heard of the controversial issue of removing statues of U.S. Confederate generals in April of this year when I watched a news report of New Orleans removing a monument during the dark. Numerous statues in various U.S. cities have been removed since. So why are they being removed?

General Robert E. Lee located in Charlottesville, Virginia

The Currents, CBC Radio program, addressed the issue of U.S. Confederate statues represent ‘image of America as a white society’. The article quotes Eric Foner, the author of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. Foner argues what many Confederate statues actually represent is “this image of America as a white society. That’s why people object to them, not because of a lack of interest in heritage or legacy.” Foner says, He goes on to say, “These statues actually don’t have a lot to do with the Civil War …They were put up mostly to be part of the legitimacy of white supremacy, of the Jim Crow system in the South, long after slavery.” The Jim Crow system was a system of racial segregation in the southern U.S. Foner explains that many of the statues were erected in the 1890s when the rights of black people were severely reduced.

What is the debate in Canada about?  For those who don’t know Canadian history, Sir John A. Macdonald was one of the founders of the Dominion of Canada and during his terms as prime minister (1867-1873 and 1878-1891) he had a transcontinental railway built. The controversy regarding him comes from the fact that during that time, the federal government approved the first residential schools in Canada.

Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first PM

The Global News’ article, The controversy over Sir John A. Macdonald, explains that the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (EFTO), one of the teacher’s unions, is lobbying to remove MacDonald’s name from schools across the province. The union claims using Macdonald’s name creates an unsafe environment for kids to learn and work in because of what it calls Macdonald’s role as the “architect of genocide against Indigenous Peoples.”

James Daschuk, an assistant professor of history at the University of Regina and author of Clearing the Plains says. “It wasn’t just with Indigenous people. In 1885, Macdonald told the House of Commons that Canada should take away the vote from people of Chinese origin on the grounds that they were a different race than Europeans.”

It isn’t just about Sir. John A MacDonald. In July, CBC reported in its article, Statue of Edward Cornwallis, that the city of Halifax in Nova Scotia will make a decision on the fate of the city’s controversial statue of Edward Cornwallis, a military officer who founded Halifax for the British in 1749. It was Cornwallis that issued the so-called scalping proclamation, offering a cash bounty to anyone who killed a Mi’kmaq person.

So where do we draw the line? Do we stop at prime ministers? Fathers of Confederation? The Ottawa Citizen’s article, Where will it stop? refers to Michel Prévost, president of la Société d’histoire de l’Outaouais and a University of Ottawa archivist.  He says some people have lobbied for the removal of Mackenzie King’s statue from Parliament Hill for Canada’s decision in June 1939 to deny entry to more than 900 Jewish refugees who had fled Germany. Already barred from docking in Cuba and the United States, their ship, the MS St. Louis, returned to Europe, where more than 250 of them subsequently died in the Holocaust.

Prévost also explains that a Father of Confederation, Hector-Louis Langevin, would have his name stripped from the Wellington Avenue building that both bears his name and houses the prime minister’s office. Langevin was one of the original designers of the residential school system.

Preston Manning, one of our conservative Canadian politician on CBC Radio’s, The Sunday Edition said,

“I think there are unsavory aspects to populism. And I think one need to deplore those, but I think one needs to focus more on the root causes of that alienation, rather that fixating on just the negative eccentricities of it.”

Most often I disagree with Manning’s views, but I agree with this one. We are fixating on the negative. It is shameful to remove those names and statues of important figures in Canadian and American history. This is not the answer. Having said that, it is important to recognize the atrocities that these people have done. We mustn’t forget that Sir John A MacDonald was the “architect of genocide against Indigenous Peoples.” or wanted to take away the vote from Chinese people. Or, that Confederate statues represent an image of America as strictly a white society. As a retired teacher, the teacher in me says these could be some teachable moments. Instead of removing the names of these historical figures from buildings and streets, or taking down statues; instead we should be using them to educate people about both their achievements and the horrific things those historical figures did.

Debate about our histories is healthy! We should re-evaluate our history. Some historians agree with me. Don Doyle, a professor of history at the University of South Carolina, (see Historians Warn) says.

“I find it very exciting and refreshing that Americans are revisiting their history and questioning just why we honor some people, some events, and not others. It is a healthy reminder that history, as the search for understanding of the past, must always challenge public history as monuments and hero worship in the public sphere.”

Perhaps people are over reacting. Instead of removing all of these controversial statues of historical figures, erasing history so to speak, let’s relocate them to museums where people can be educated on both the positive and negative aspects our history. Good or bad, these people are still a part of our histories. Perhaps a plaque could be associated with each historical figure explaining the good achieved by the figure, as well as explaining the atrocities they are associated with that historical character. These people were only following the belief system of their time period. They didn’t know any different. When I taught history, I emphasized the importance of practicing historical empathy.  Historical empathy is the understanding of why people in history did what they did, as opposed to simply knowing what they did.  Instead of attempting to erase the dark periods of our histories, we need to practice historical empathy and acknowledge them. We should attempt to understand why these horrific things happened in our past so that they might not happen again. Maybe then healing can occur.

When the Nest Empties

A commentary about dealing with Empty Nest Syndrome.

Robert Neelly Bellah, an American sociologist, once said, “However painful the process of leaving home, for parents and for children, the really frightening thing for both would be the prospect of the child never leaving home.” 

This quote really resonated with me because this week my wife and I, along with two of our adult children, said goodbye to one of our two daughters who flew to Dublin, Ireland to attend Trinity College. Mr. Bellah is right, it is a painful process for both the parents and the child leaving home. I’ve watched my wife cry a few dozen times before our daughter left. I have to be honest, I’ve shed the occasional tear myself thinking about her leaving and while watching her leave. I’ve watched my daughter get emotional talking about saying goodbye to her many friends. It is indeed a painful process.

Our instincts as parents is to keep our children nearby so we can protect them and rescue them when in need. I’ve watched many parents do this as a school teacher during my 35 years of teaching, especially in recent years. We teachers called them ‘helicopter parents’ because they hover and swoop in to rescue their children when the children whimper or if there is any chance their children might fail at something. These parents never want their children to fail or feel bad. As a teacher, I found these parents difficult and inflexible. Even more, I saw the damage they did to their children. What is even more disturbing to me is this is a phenomenon occurring with adult children.

In a blog called, Parenting Grown Children: What Dr. Spock Forgot to Tell Us, has a really interesting blog post called, Letting Go. This article describes what helicopter parents of adult children looks like. It says,

“What does this look like? Millennials’ parents joining their adult children at interviews; parents calling managers to lobby for better reviews or higher raises. Or parents actually doing the work for their adult children – which all unravels when the employee doesn’t have the luxury of time to participate or complete a task.”

If parents are rescuing their adult children when they go off to college or get a job, then in a way those children really haven’t left home, even though they may physically live in their own places. These young people are still being protected by their parents just as they would be when they were living in their parent’s dwelling.  Could this be what Robert Neelly Bellah meant when he said, “the really frightening thing for both would be the prospect of the child never leaving home.” I’m beginning to wonder if Mr. Bellah was referring to overprotective, meddlesome parents.

In the blog post I sited earlier, the author wrote,

“Many of us raised our children to be independent. Once they were adults, we wanted them to come to us for our advice, good counsel and, yes, the occasional handout. But in college, they would be on their own in dealing with professors and deans. In finding a job, we might prep them on how to put their best foot forward, but they would be on their own. Once on the job, they would figure out how to perform and to stand up for their rights and benefits.”

That is how we raised our children. I am so grateful to have a life partner who thought as I did. We wanted our children to be independent and be able to handle things on their own. We travelled with our children extensively so they would be able to confidently travel on their own. That is the reason our daughter was able to go half way around the world to attend graduate school. We gave her the confidence, knowledge and desire to do so. I am proud of that and I am even more proud of her. A friend recently reminded us of that. She told us that the reason our daughter is able to do this is because we raised her to be strong, brave and independent. She is a strong, brave woman and will be even a stronger woman because of this new adventure. Roy T. Bennett, author of The Light in the Heart, wrote, “It’s only after you’ve stepped outside your comfort zone that you begin to change, grow, and transform.” She is able to step outside her comfort zone because of my wife and I. She did this once before when she flew to South Africa alone to volunteer at the age of 21.

llustration by Andy Chase Cundiff

Having said that, seeing your daughter trek across the ocean to live far, far away is not easy. I have a whole array of emotions as does my wife and our other two children.  I was excited for my daughter, yet I was afraid because I would not be nearby to help her should she need help. I was a proud dad, because she was so strong, brave and independent, yet I had all the symptoms of Empty Nest Syndrome. Empty nest syndrome is when a parent has feelings of loneliness or sadness after children grow up and leave home. I was feeling sad. I was feeling lonely even though she just left. I felt so lonely, seeing her go through the airport security gates. I just wanted to give my little girl one more hug and tell her that I loved her one more time.

So many people, without really saying it, communicated to us with their body language and with words left unspoken, that they would not be able to let their child fly across the world to live. We could have expressed to our daughter our displeasure with the idea which would have influenced her decision, but we didn’t. You might be thinking, Why didn’t we? I think Terry Pratchett, an author from the United Kingdom answers that question best when he wrote, “Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”  How could any good parent prevent their child from having an experience of a lifetime? An experience where she will grow tenfold in her confidence and maturity. I know that this is part of our daughter’s journey and that she will return a better person.

I admire her. She inspires me. She inspired me when she bravely left for South Africa to volunteer. She inspires me even more now. She will make this world a better place because of what she will take from this experience. I’ll miss her, but love for a child should be unconditional. I love her no matter what, as does my wife, and that is why she is free to experience life. I can’t wait for her to share her experiences with us.