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.

Author: Sommer season all year

I am a retired school teacher. I taught high school for 35 years.

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