Figures From History

Sir John A. Vs. the Vandals Redux

John Robson
September 25, 2018
Our self-appointed cultural guardians have once again targeted a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald in Charlottetown. To them, Canada’s first Prime Minister fails to meet today’s pristine moral standards and so must be sent down the memory-hole. John Robson thinks Canadians need the confident humility that comes of knowing flawed people can still be giants.
Figures From History

Sir John A. Vs. the Vandals Redux

John Robson
September 25, 2018
Our self-appointed cultural guardians have once again targeted a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald in Charlottetown. To them, Canada’s first Prime Minister fails to meet today’s pristine moral standards and so must be sent down the memory-hole. John Robson thinks Canadians need the confident humility that comes of knowing flawed people can still be giants.
Share on facebook
Share on Facebook
Share on twitter
Share on Twitter

There’s a Soviet-era joke about three exiles in the Siberian gulag. One says, “I criticized Comrade Popov when he was a rising star.” The second says, “I praised Comrade Popov when his star was falling.” The third says, “I’m Sir John A. Macdonald.”

No, sorry. Actually he says, “I’m Popov.”

It has not been the tradition in Canada to erase people from history when we discover they have failings, because we realized they weren’t perfect to begin with. We left it to those who considered themselves to be without defects, like Communists, to erect statues to their superhuman predecessors, and then topple them as needed for ideological purification. In Canada, we flawed humans have put flawed heroes, and some bums, on pedestals in order to learn from history, rather than erase it.

Not any more.

In 2009, well before Sir John A. Macdonald was carted off to a Victoria warehouse and the City of Kingston scheduled public consultations on how to “reinterpret” local memorials of the father of our country as a no-good rat, before Hector Langevin’s name was peeled off the façade of the Prime Minister’s Office in Ottawa, and before bronzed Lord Cornwallis was felled in Halifax, a planned recreation of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham was cancelled because it was too painful to admit… what? That parliamentary self-government and individual rights had triumphed over obtuse and extortionate absolutism?

No. That New France was not perfect. Five years earlier the Americans had cheerfully reenacted George Washington’s humiliating 1754 defeat at Fort Necessity. But when then-Quebec Premier Jean Charest was invited to the planned recreation of the great 1759 battle between the armies of Wolfe and Montcalm, he could not even bear the thought of it. “It’s not enough 250 years to do that,” he tsked. “Maybe at 300 years or 350, or maybe never.”

Never? That’s roughly the schedule for the Chinese politburo to face Mao’s true legacy. So instead of hundreds of weekend redcoats and bluecoats assembling on the Plains of Abraham in 2009, a bunch of poets gathered there for a celebration of the survival of the Quebecois nation. At which it evidently wasn’t too soon to read out the 1970 FLQ manifesto because, former premier Bernard Landry said, “There is nothing dishonourable in looking history straight in the eye.”

Excusez moi. But in the face of such hypocrisy I must insist that there is something dishonourable in erasing and rewriting it.

Today the impulse to purify history comes particularly from Canadians of indigenous descent, fueled by a counterfeit conviction that their own history is pristine. For all his imperfections, from excessive drinking to elasticity of principle, Sir John A. is being bundled into the memory hole on a flatbed truck essentially because of complaints by First Nations activists about residential schools, the weaponization of food against the Prairie tribes, and disparaging references to “savage” culture.

Macdonald and his contemporaries were not free from sin on these matters. But his views, and actions, have been egregiously exaggerated and misrepresented; for his time he was a model of liberal enlightenment. The key question is whether those now casting stones, or uncasting statues, are really without sin. Otherwise there’s no telling who will one day follow Macdonald into socially engineered oblivion… including their ancestors.

Scenes from the removal of Sir John A. Macdonald’s statue from outside Victoria City Hall.

Modern aboriginal lobbyists certainly cherish the skills of modernity, from literacy to advanced technology, that Sir John A. was determined they must acquire so as not to have the modern world pass by, or over them. And the sanitized version of an aboriginal Garden of Eden free of war, ethnic cleansing, slavery, or cannibalism before the white serpents invaded is a fraud.

To say so is not to excuse aggression, lies or false dealing. It is to say when we erect statues in this country they are to men and women, not gods. Not for us the deification of false idols like Stalin or Mao who will lead us all to a future where, Trotsky once claimed, “Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser, and subtler; his body will become more harmonious, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical…. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.”

I will not dwell on the pathos of this same kind of utopian nonsense resulting in smelting Macdonald while burnishing monuments to the racist eugenicist Emily Murphy. Instead I will follow Trotsky with John Ralston Saul who nearly two decades ago said, “for better and for worse, we do not erase. Only ideological dictatorships erase.”

A major part of the glory of the West, and its strength, is self-criticism. In ancient Egypt regime change was habitually accompanied by chiseling predecessors off the very pillars. In England they kept Bad King John’s tomb, and his nickname, as an eternal reminder and warning against subsequent tyrants.

In the United States, it won’t do to pretend that statues of Confederate generals are not about slavery or that Dixie is just a tune. But I would not remove the monuments to Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg who, like the Highlanders at Culloden, deserved a better cause than that for which they fought so bravely.

I would even keep a statue of Stalin somewhere, to remind us how it invariably ends for falsifiers of history who keep erecting tin gods on tyrannical foundations until the entire squalid enterprise comes tumbling down. And to remind us how this genuine genocidal killer was supported by many Western intellectuals blinded by hatred of their own culture.

In his farewell letter, the late Senator John McCain said Americans “never hide from history. We make history.” If Canadians are to stop hiding from history and start making it again, we need the confident humility that comes of knowing flawed people can be giants.

Upon removing Macdonald’s statue, Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said, “So John A. Macdonald, in this case, was a great man. We live in one of the greatest countries in the world, without question. And he was also the architect of the Indian Residential School system. So we need to find a way to both commemorate history and reconcile with history.” Amen to that. But wrapping the Old Chieftain in a tarp and hiding him in a warehouse is not such a way. Nor is lying about it.

My National Post colleague John Ivison, vainly objecting to renaming Langevin Block, quoted poet Maya Angelou: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived. But, if faced with courage, it need not be lived again.”

The hardest part of facing history is accepting that just as the greatest men and women of the past had flaws, so do we. Tearing down Macdonald is an attempt to tower over him. But new peaks are not rising here. It is a revolt of political pygmies who imagine they are giants.

Love C2C Journal? Here's how you can help us grow.

More for you

Obstruction of the Justices: Why We Need the Notwithstanding Clause More than Ever

When Ontario Premier Doug Ford invoked the Charter’s “notwithstanding” clause in back-to-work legislation last fall, he became just the latest political leader to be pilloried for using it. Loudly condemned as an instrument of oppression, the notwithstanding clause has been under attack for decades as a political expedient that should never be used. But as Gordon Lee argues, the clause was a carefully considered addition to the Charter intended to safeguard democratic legislatures from the whims of activist judges. And with a Supreme Court that continues to invent rights and expand its power, we are going to need it more and more.

Where Have All the Babies Gone? The Unmet Fertility Goals of Canadian Women

There’s a minimum legal age for voting. You have to pass a test to drive a car. You even need a licence to get married. When it comes to having kids, however, there are no restrictions or official requirements at all. But if it’s so easy to do, why are Canadian women choosing to have so few children? More important, why are they choosing to have fewer kids than their own stated desires? Based on exclusive survey data, demographer Lyman Stone uncovers the intimate details of fertility expectations in Canada, what is driving them and what is happening to the life satisfaction of Canadian mothers.

Jawbones, Gophers and Tainted Milk: What Do We Really Know About Missing Children at Canada’s Residential Schools?

With so much pressure to apply Indigenous ways of knowing to many subjects and public policy imperatives, it has become necessary to remind everyone of the crucial importance of Western ways of knowing to life in the 21st century. The scientific method, open discourse, archival evidence and rigorous use of logic undergird modern civilization and have made our digital age possible. Using this toolbox of time-tested concepts, academics Hymie Rubenstein and Tom Flanagan investigate recent claims regarding missing students and unmarked graves at Canada’s allegedly genocidal Indian Residential Schools. They find the current narrative to be sorely lacking in facts and other reliable evidence.

More from this author

Mob Rule on Pipelines and Grizzly Hunting

There was a time in “the true North strong and free” you could follow your dreams as long as you didn’t hurt other people. Then came “social licence” and suddenly, from energy pipelines to the B.C. grizzly bear hunt, things got banned for being unpopular, a.k.a. “socially unacceptable”. That ominous change sets Canada on the well-worn path to the tyranny of the majority, writes John Robson.

Mr. Trudeau’s Photo Album

Why is it that those who most vehemently proclaim their own virtue are inevitably those who have some nasty skeletons rattling around in the closet? Take our virtue-signalling PM and his recently unearthed penchant for dressing in blackface, the ne plus ultra of progressive sins. Covering one’s face in black paint isn’t illegal, of course, but it is an affront to contemporary mores. To unpack the distinction between law and morality, John Robson looks at Lord Devlin’s 1965 book, The Enforcement of Morals. Robson makes clear that breaking the law may be one thing, but offending the moral code of the age can extract an even greater price.

Pot in a Time of Pandemic

An Ontario nurse enroute to Detroit to help with the coronavirus pandemic was caught at the border with 150 pounds of marijuana and faces serious jail time. For John Robson, we can legalize pot without disrupting the world. The “cat is out of the baggie”, and there may be situations where lighting a joint, like having a cocktail, may be just the thing.

Share This Story

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on print

Donate

Subscribe to the C2C Weekly
It's Free!

* indicates required
Interests
By providing your email you consent to receive news and updates from C2C Journal. You may unsubscribe at any time.