What makes an historical monument worth amending or tearing down? This can be a very difficult question to answer.
The debate seems to be popping up everywhere right now. Among the monuments up for consideration in Canada is the statue of Edward Cornwallis in Halifax and use of Sir John A. MacDonald for names of public schools in Ontario.
After a heated discussion on this topic with my siblings and cousins, I realize there are many complexities to consider.
During our discussion we found that specific details of a monument were relevant. Seeing as each monument bears a unique story, there was no overarching rule that could be used to determine whether we felt a monument was appropriate. Questions included: Was the specific individual being celebrated? What is the context in which the monument was placed? What date was the monument erected? There were other factors as well.
We had differing viewpoints on preserving a monument we had deemed inappropriate. Some argued our society should aim to preserve history and cases where a monument honoured an individual with a darker past, it would be best to clarify that aspect of the individual’s life using a plaque or other identifier to make the facts clear. Some also argued that changes could be made to modify offensive aspects of a monument or more monuments could be erected to recognize the untold side of history.
These interpretations are similar to those made by indigenous senator Murray Sinclair on the removal of John A. MacDonald’s name from public schools in Ontario. He suggested there are better ways of reconciling the history surrounding Canada’s first prime minister, who was responsible for the horrific residential school system. In an interview with the CBC’s Susan Bonner, Sinclair recommended a different focus.
“The most important thing we should be looking at is that there are a lot of indigenous people who have made a positive contribution to this country, to their people and to the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous people, who have largely been ignored by history and deserve to be honoured and commemorated,” said Sinclair.
By celebrating more indigenous people and their accomplishments in Canada with more monuments, we have the ability to create a more complete history while still keeping current monuments.
In contrast to this argument, others in my family argued that it would be better to remove offensive monuments. They suggested they were meant to glorify an individual. Thus, if the person being celebrated had also committed terrible acts, maintaining the monument accomplishes the wrong objective.
This argument is similar to the one made by many protesters who advocated for removal of the Cornwallis statue in a downtown Halifax park. Although Cornwallis is recognized for having founded Halifax as governor of Nova Scotia, he was also responsible for a brutal scalping campaign launched against the Mi'kmaq people.
Many protesters have called for the statue’s removal as it wrongfully sends the message that discrimination against indigenous people is tolerated.
No matter which argument people favour in this debate, one thing is clear: history, up until this point, has been a one-sided story. Demographics discriminated against, treated with disrespect because of their race, culture or religious beliefs, have often been excluded from determining what our history looks like.
Whether we decide to tear down a monument or make additions, what is most important is consulting with groups most affected. We need to listen to what these groups want to see and work with them to create a history that tells all sides of the story.
Jay Fallis has a master degrees in political science from University of Toronto.