Education is not enough to counter monuments to history's scoundrels

Opinion: How can the antidote for tributes to problematic figures be education, when it has already proven it's not up to the task?

The overthrow of the Enver Hoxha monument In Tirana In 1991. (Photo by: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)

The overthrow of the Enver Hoxha monument In Tirana In 1991. (Photo by: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)

On a mild February afternoon in 1991, a crowd of roughly 5,000 students and labour demonstrators gathered in Tirana, Albania. The assembly came after weeks of school boycotts, demanding that a name be removed from the University of Tirana. That name was Enver Hoxha, a dictator whose name stands out as one of the Cold War era’s more monomaniacal tyrants, and whose government had so forcefully repressed political dissent and religious freedoms that, by the early 1980s, nearly every Albanian had either been interrogated by state police, sent to forced labour camp, or knew someone in the former two categories.

Hoxha’s name was added in reverence to the University after his death in 1985, but by the Cold War’s nadir, his name had become a placeholder for the eastern bloc’s cruelly oppressive statism. After police lowered their weapons and gave way, the protesters toppled Hoxha’s statue and kicked its urine-drenched head through the streets. A year later, after the Democratic Party was voted into power, his name was finally removed from the university.

I learned about Hoxha’s regime for the first time in Sunday school, at an evangelist church in south Florida. The lead pastor and the school instructor took us through a lesson in communism, whose Satanic influences in government, I was told, led dictators—of which Hoxha was the worst—to kidnap and torture God-fearing Christian martyrs whose only crime was their steadfast belief in our Lord and Savior. Through these lessons the Albanian flag, a black double-headed eagle displayed on a blood-red field, became as familiar to me as the American and Canadian flags.

And in these lessons, I was taught that Hoxha’s crimes were twofold: the killing of not only Christians, but the killing of his own people. In university, I later learned the truth of the collapse of communism in Albania. It wasn’t divine retribution, as I was taught in Sunday school, or the inevitable triumph of western society, as I was taught later in high school, but a revolt against authoritarian oppression led by students and labourers, many of whom, like most Albanians, were not Christian but Muslim. But even then, the textbooks and research papers I pored through reinforced this notion: a dictator who oppresses his own people is twice damned.

MORE: It’s time to stop idolizing historical figures altogether

What, then, to make of monuments built to slavers and colonialists? When monuments are made to commemorate men who enrich their “own people” while enslaving, oppressing, and massacring other peoples on the same soil, what obligation do those whose people survived this tyranny have to honour it?

Sir John A. MacDonald's statue in Kingston, Ontario on June 21, 2012. (Lars Hagberg/CP)

Sir John A. MacDonald’s statue in Kingston, Ontario on June 21, 2012. (Lars Hagberg/CP)

In the wake of movements across the United States to remove Confederate monuments—as well as the white nationalist protests demanding their permanence—a similar conversation has been reinvigorated in Canada, with calls to remove statues made to Egerton Ryerson in Toronto and Edward Cornwallis in Halifax, as well as efforts to remove Sir John A. Macdonald’s name and likeness from schools, public spaces, and even our currency. The popular history and legacy of each of these men, I also learned as a child: I learned of Ryerson’s fierce advocacy for universal education, and for breaking up the Family Compact, a coterie of petty oligarchs who ran Upper Canada as their personal fiefdom. I learned of Cornwallis’s establishment of Halifax, and his many heroics in wars abroad. I learned of Sir John A. Macdonald putting aside personal grievances with George Brown, in order to build this nation and stitch it together with steel.

What I did not learn until adulthood, however, was Ryerson’s role as an architect of the residential school system, which stole the bodies, heritage, and lives of thousands upon thousands of Indigenous children. I did not learn that Cornwallis’s settlement of Halifax was less “settlement” than outright plunder of Mi’kmaq land, or that Cornwallis offered a hefty bounty for their scalps. I certainly did not learn that Sir John A. Macdonald believed Canada to be a land built for “Aryans,” that he used starvation and disease as weapons to force Indigenous people off their lands, or that, even as a man of his time, Macdonald’s obsessions with race and race-based policy were considered shocking.

MORE: Why Macdonald’s name doesn’t belong on Canada’s schools

Statues, plaques, and building titles do not wrestle with the legacy of great men who were at once benefactors and tyrants. Their purpose, for the most part, is not to educate, but to commemorate. Not far from where I attended Sunday school, my younger sister was once a student at a school named for Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president whose policy held that a child like her not only did not belong in a school with white children, but ought to be whipped for daring to read. I once attended a journalism conference alongside students from Nathan Bedford Forrest High School, named after a prominent leader in the formative days of the Ku Klux Klan, who in his time would have had myself and every other Black student hanged and burned for deigning to share the same space and debate the same ideas with our white peers.

COUNTERPOINT: Why Macdonald’s name should stay on our schools

The common refrain for those who defend monuments made to these great men, is that the proper response is education, rather than destruction. That is, if we used these monuments as a jumping-off point to examine both the achievements of men like Sir John A. Macdonald, as well as the sins he committed against Indigenous communities, we could reach a better understanding of our shared history. At the same time, when educational models are created to achieve that better understanding, they’re heavily criticized as well. Afrocentric schooling in Toronto was once described in the Globe and Mail as being “against everything this city stands for,” and mandatory Indigenous studies courses at the university level was once described in Maclean’s as “a waste of time and money.” And, of course, there is the tiresome, perennial grousing that arrives every February to kick off Black History Month, debating its necessity at a time when Black families are 228 years away from closing the wealth gap with their white peers.

MORE: The push to erase Canada’s racist past

Education is always the answer, as long as it doesn’t challenge what we believe we know. In Sunday school, I learned about an evil man half a world away, following an evil ideology whose greatest crime was persecuting the people who subscribe to the same faith that I do. But my instructors never mentioned Jefferson Davis’s name, much less vilified it the way they did Enver Hoxha’s. They never explained the meaning of the Confederate flag decals on their cars parked outside. Neither did any of my teachers in Canada, who exalted this country’s role in protecting the enslaved, mention in our school trips to McGill University that its namesake, James McGill, was himself a slaveowner. What I was instead taught about slavery in this country ranges from minimizing its existence to outright denying slavery happened in Canada at all. Sir John A. Macdonald was a political visionary with funny hair, not a flagrant bigot who sympathized with the Confederate cause.

What that means for those living within a body like mine—marked with the Curse of Ham—or a body born from an inconvenient people whose presence the great men of this country sought to extinguish, is this: our society builds monuments atop soil soaked in our blood, to men who enriched white settlers at the expense of our bodies, our cultures, and our lives. The contemporary legacy of their plunder and enslavement is downplayed, if not hidden altogether, and their oppression of our ancestors is, ultimately, an unspoken but acceptable trade-off. And any attempt we make to rectify this with tactics deemed civilized is met with social and institutional resistance, if not outright sabotage. This is why people topple statues, deface plaques, and throw red paint on monuments. In the absence of broader public education and social context, those monuments come to mean one thing: these men and their actions, as well as the ideologies which spawned them, are held absolved.

After all, we were not their people then, and we are not yours, now.

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