The push to erase Canada’s racist past

The drive to remove monuments and place names that offend racial sensibilities is gaining momentum. Are we facing up to the past? Or hiding it?

A municipal employee covers the statue of Halifax founder Edward Cornwallis, who issued a bounty on the heads of indigenous people, during a protest in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, July 15, 2017. (Chris Donovan/Reuters)

A municipal employee covers the statue of Halifax founder Edward Cornwallis (Chris Donovan/Reuters)

Cornwallis, Langevin, Ryerson, Begbie: Names symbolic of racism, colonialism, hatred and violence. That is why statues and other representations of these dead white men—to name just a few of Canada’s founding fathers, judges and settlers—must be removed from public view. So some insist, their voices seeming to grow louder by the day.

No, they are nation builders whose names must not be forgotten, others say. Begbie, Ryerson, Langevin, Cornwallis: if their figures and memorials made from metal, clay and other media cause offence, explain why, and how. Let’s not hide painful chapters or deny our country’s history.

These two perspectives frame the current conversation about the removal—or shaming—of historical names and statues from public spaces. While the disagreements have lately reached a fever pitch, they aren’t new at all.

The statue of 18th century British military officer Edward Cornwallis, placed in downtown Halifax almost 90 years ago, has vexed Mi’kmaq people for decades. Calls for its removal go back at least to the 1990s. Is there any wonder why? In 1749, Cornwallis issued a proclamation that offered cash for Mi’kmaq scalps.

The statue is now scene of frequent protest and counter-demonstration, drawing attention to the Cornwallis legacy, warts and all. On Canada Day, a handful of Canadian Forces members associated with the conservative Proud Boys movement mixed it up beside the statue with Cornwallis opponents. Nasty words were exchanged. The Proud Boys members were sanctioned and called out by their military superiors, including Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance.

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The City of Halifax has yet to decide what it will do about the divisive chunk of metal and other pieces of civic infrastructure—a road, a park—which bear the Cornwallis name. An “expert panel” will convene soon to study the matter, says the city’s mayor, Mike Savage.

In the meantime, Cornwallis the statue will be scorned, mocked, occasionally defended, and, as witnessed in July, shrouded in various shades of Canadian Tire tarpaulin. This might be instructive, even useful. Perspectives are being shared, arguments held, biases exposed and explored. But historians worry that when facts are ignored, confusion is sown.

In Toronto, some Ryerson University students have demanded their institution change its name. The school’s namesake advocated for the development of the residential school system, which is blamed for harming generations of Indigenous people and their families—although he did not build or manage the system.

In Ottawa, the Trudeau government reacted to concerns raised about Hector-Louis Langevin. A 19th century journalist, lawyer and politician, Langevin is credited with defending Quebec’s interests leading up to and after Confederation in 1867. He served as a cabinet minister in Sir John A. Macdonald’s governments; these included a brief stint as superintendent-general of Indian Affairs, and a longer run as minister of public works.

In May 1883, while serving in the latter capacity, Langevin stood in the House of Commons during debates and described efforts under way to fund the construction of three residential schools on the Prairies. The new initiative was led by none other than Prime Minister Macdonald, who also ran Indian affairs at the time. But it is Langevin who is now stuck with the epithet “architect of the residential school system.”

The label is found everywhere, reinforced by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in its 2012 report on residential schools called “They Came for the Children.” The paper begins with an excerpt from comments Langevin made during the House of Commons debate of May, 1883: “In order to educate the [Indigenous] children properly we must separate them from their families. Some people may say that this is hard but if we want to civilize them we must do that.”

In the same debate—but not mentioned in the TRC report—Langevin went further, saying: “The fact is, that if you wish to educate those children you must separate them from their parents during the time they are being educated. If you leave them in the family they may know how to read and write, but they still remain savages, whereas by separating them in the way proposed, they acquire the habits and tastes—it is to be hoped only the good tastes—of civilized people.”

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On these lines are built the argument that Langevin is to blame for residential schools. The city of Calgary reacted first, noting the TRC report when renaming earlier this year a steel bridge spanning the Bow River. The residential school system was cited for the name change. There was no great outcry.

“I want it to be known what was done to us was real. It’s everlasting and it’s cost a lot of lives,” a Peigan woman named Lorna Born With A Tooth told reporters, before the re-dedication. “I only have four brothers and sisters left. Each of my brothers and sisters that attended residential school have passed away with alcohol addiction. So it means a lot to me.”

In June, the federal government declared the Langevin Block was no more. Housing the Prime Minister’s working quarters for decades, the 19th century building on Wellington Street is henceforth known as the Office of the Prime Minister and the Privy Council Office, Justin Trudeau told an appreciative audience.

But the controversy doesn’t end there. “Langevin certainly supported his government’s decisions about residential schools, and spoke in favour of it during that 1883 debate, but there is so far no other evidence to suggest—based on what has been discovered to date—that he was the central proponent of the system or ‘the architect’, as some have put it,” University of Guelph history professor Matthew Hayday told Maclean’s.

“The general consensus among historians who work more directly on this topic is that others, including Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, and certain government officials, are more directly responsible,” he added.

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That may be, but there’s more to the discussion, or at least there should be, counters Adam Gaudry, a Métis scholar and assistant professor in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Native Studies and Department of Political Science. Symbols are powerful; they effect people in different ways.

“What I’m concerned about is this ongoing narrative in which Indigenous people must subvert their own pain in order to educate others” about Canada’s colonial experience.

Often, he says, people consider colonialism as something from the past, long dead and buried. “But all of this stuff—dispossession, governments undermining Indigenous culture—it’s ongoing. While it might seem like reaction to it has just come out from nowhere, it hasn’t. Indigenous people have been dealing with this all their lives.”

Gaudry recommends searching for some middle ground. Imagine a society in which everything is discussed, he says, where everyone is recognized, including those who were made to suffer and those who suffer still. That’s what the re-naming movements represent, and they aren’t going away.

The Law Society of British Columbia (LSBC) decided this year to remove from its offices a small statue of Matthew Baillie Begbie, the province’s first chief justice, after concerns were raised by the society’s Truth and Reconciliation Advisory Committee.

Begbie helped introduce “colonial law” to unceded First Nations territory in the mid to late 1800s, the LSBC noted. While he reportedly was sympathetic to Indigenous peoples and was known to have defended their interests in his courtroom, Begbie is notorious for sentencing to death six Tsilhqot’in chiefs convicted by juries for their roles in the 1864 massacre of more than a dozen white road surveyors and labourers, men who had encroached upon unceded land.

Begbie may have had no choice in sentencing, others have acknowledged—the chiefs were found guilty, by a jury, of capital offences. But that is cold comfort to Indigenous people who are confronted by his likeness and name to this day. In 2014, the B.C. government formally acknowledged the six chiefs “were not criminals and they were not outlaws,” adding, “to the extent that it falls within the power of the province of B.C., we confirm without reservation that these six Tsilhqot’in chiefs are fully exonerated of any crime or wrongdoing.”

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The LSBC weighed its options. “By reconsidering Judge Begbie’s sentencing of the Tsilhqot’in leaders, we are not trying to erase or rewrite the history, but to enrich our understanding of history by adding the Indigenous perspective,” reads a note to LSBC benchers, delivered earlier this year. “The Truth and Reconciliation Advisory Committee is not recommending the Begbie statue not be shown anywhere, but has discussed the possibility that the statue might serve an educational purpose in a venue that is more conducive to providing additional context, such as a museum.” But the statue now sits in storage, according to an LSBC spokesperson.

Meanwhile, the practice of handing miniature Begbie statues to LSBC award recipients must cease and inside LSBC offices, the “distress code used to trigger safety procedures” will no longer be “Begbie,” according to a February 2017 memo to society benchers. The Begbie image and the name have been disappeared from LSBC headquarters.

And another Begbie-removal initiative is under discussion in New Westminister, where a life-sized statue of the old judge dominates a small public plaza—named Begbie Square—outside the city’s law courts.

“I don’t think much of the hanging judge,” Alexis Creek First Nation Chief Ervin Charleyboy told the New Westminster Record newspaper in June, using a descriptor Begbie has borne through history. “It would give me great pleasure to get a big excavator or something and lower him with a rope. That would be the end of that hanging judge. It just brings out the bitterness in me, and I just don’t like that.”

Placed in public settings, unveiled by prominent people, representations and plaques dedicated to historical figures are obviously meant to be celebratory, as recognition for what we perceive at the time as honourable deeds; as a society, we don’t raise monuments to evil men.

On the other hand, when perceptions shift and celebrated figures turn notorious, what is the argument for leaving their unsettling mementos alone?

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Writing in the Vancouver Sun recently, B.C. historian Bill McKee argued that Begbie’s “ordering as chief justice of B.C. the execution of native leaders was unfair and appalling” and “needs to be acknowledged by British Columbians in a meaningful way…Removing his statue will accomplish nothing of general benefit. It would help to hide this sad part of our history.”

Do not bring down the statue in New Westminster, he says; rather, place around it some “interpretive panels explaining all parts of the life of Matthew Baillie Begbie.”

This compromise has been used before. Nicholas Flood Davin was, like Langevin, a 19th century journalist and politician and he was involved with the creation of residential schools. His gravesite inside Ottawa’s Beechwood cemetery has special prominence, raised above other sites, with its own concrete staircase, massive tombstone and bust. All of this suggests Davin was no ordinary man, certainly not one to be reviled.

But he is now, and here’s why: people have tuned into an 1879 paper Davin produced for the Macdonald government. His “Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-breeds” recommended Canada adopt a residential school system similar to one south of the border. It is a terrible, illuminating document.

“The experience in the United States is the same as our own as far as the adult Indian is concerned,” Davin wrote. “Little can be done with him. He can be taught to do a little at farming, and at (live) stock-raising, and to dress in a more civilized manner, but that is all.”

Post-TRC, more concerns were raised about the the Davin gravesite. Rather than pull it all down, the cemetery decided this year to mount a plaque adjacent to the tombstone, with some words explaining Davin’s residential school system role. Davin recommended such schools “as institutions where children, removed from ‘the influence of the wigwam,’ would receive ‘the care of a mother’ and an education befitting a Canadian,” the plaque reads. “Tragically, they received neither. A 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded the century-long system was a ‘cultural genocide.'”

As history, the statement is terse, incomplete, certainly not comprehensive. It won’t satisfy everyone. But placed in its context, beside a forgotten, flawed man of his day, it seems appropriate, and useful, and about time.

This post has been edited from its original version.

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