This article was submitted to The Tête-à-Tête as part of a Discussion on inclusivity, free speech, and identity politics.
Several years ago, the St. Albert Gazette ran a letter from a resident who said that the statue of Father Albert Lacombe erected outside the St. Albert Catholic Parish Church should be taken down. He argued that it represented a colonial past when St. Albert was a “staunch, white Catholic bastion”, and that it was insensitive to the Aboriginal peoples and other minorities who lived and still live in St. Albert. I replied that St. Albert was never a white bastion to begin with, as it was founded by Father Lacombe and 20 Metis Aboriginal families.
More recently, in Calgary, there’s a move to rename the bridge and school named for Hector-Louis Langevin, a Father of Confederation who was also involved in the grisly residential schools that caused so much horror to their Aboriginal victims. In Ontario, Wilfrid Laurier University decided not to put statues of all of Canada’s past prime ministers on campus, on the grounds that it would be “politically and culturally insensitive.”
Critics have pointed out that past depictions of historical figures like Langevin, or prime ministers like John A. Macdonald and Wilfrid Laurier, have only been positive. They don’t mention the ugly consequences that their actions often had on Canada’s aboriginal peoples. This is true by itself, but while Macdonald, Laurier and Langevin were not virtuous angels, neither were they moustache-twirling villains. They were human beings, who were both capable of great accomplishments and deep flaws, including the racism so common back then.
Remembering figures like Langevin, Macdonald and Laurier only for their flaws is no better than remembering only their accomplishments. The implication of trying to expunge any positive depiction of them is that we are somehow not allowed to have a positive memory of them, something that doesn’t really foster reconciliation among non-Native Canadians. Besides that, one might also ask whether we should also remove memorials of other historical figures for their flaws. Are we allowed to celebrate Emily Murphy’s contributions to women’s rights, because she also supported forcibly sterilizing the mentally disabled? Are we allowed to celebrate Tommy Douglas’s contributions to healthcare, because he also supported eugenics? Shouldn’t their memorials be renamed as well?
Reconciliation with Canada’s Aboriginal peoples is something that needs to be done, but there are better ways to do it. Instead of expunging parts of our history, we should learn more about other, more neglected parts of it, such as why the Treaties were signed, or the long-term effects of the residential schools on generations of Aboriginal peoples. Gestures like the Justin Trudeau government’s inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, or Edmonton City Council’s beginning their meetings by acknowledging that they are gathering on Treaty 6 land, are better ways of acknowledging the bonds between all Canadians, and the work that still needs to be done.
By studying Canadian history, warts and all, and acknowledging both the good and the bad elements of different historical figures, we can build a far more enduring and long-lasting understanding than by dismissing them altogether.
This article was originally published in the St. Albert Gazette on December 26, 2015.