Public displays of history

How to Cool Canada’s Overheated Statue Removal Business

Lloyd W. Robertson
July 17, 2021
Just a few years ago we passed them on the street without a second thought. Today, they’re political minefields. Statues are one way for a society to remember its heroes and its great moments. But amid a rethinking of our past, perhaps we need a new way to decide which heroes are worthy of remembering, and which moments were truly great. Setting aside the heated rhetoric and rampant vandalism currently determining the fate of Canada’s statues of historical figures, Lloyd W. Robertson surveys the global experience and looks for ways to reconcile public memorials from the past with present-day concerns.   
Public displays of history

How to Cool Canada’s Overheated Statue Removal Business

Lloyd W. Robertson
July 17, 2021
Just a few years ago we passed them on the street without a second thought. Today, they’re political minefields. Statues are one way for a society to remember its heroes and its great moments. But amid a rethinking of our past, perhaps we need a new way to decide which heroes are worthy of remembering, and which moments were truly great. Setting aside the heated rhetoric and rampant vandalism currently determining the fate of Canada’s statues of historical figures, Lloyd W. Robertson surveys the global experience and looks for ways to reconcile public memorials from the past with present-day concerns.   
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Judging by all the attention they’re getting these days, Canadians have very strong feelings about statues in public places – mostly, it seems, that they don’t belong. It wasn’t always that way, of course. Memorials speak about a place and the people who have lived there, and provide clues to key events, characters and narratives of our past. It is a system that tends to benefit the conqueror and often says little or nothing about those who were conquered. But if a particular group “won” the past, do they still deserve to win today? That’s the thorny issue Canada is grappling with now. But in a depressingly ad hoc manner. We need a better system for making decisions about public statues. 

The biggest “monumental” issue in Canada today concerns our first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. Given the tremendous heat brought to bear on the issue of residential schools, particularly following the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves around these former schools, Macdonald’s reputation has plummeted rapidly. The case against him is that as prime minister he presided over the creation of many of these schools, and was an enthusiastic supporter of the policy in general. Further, his actions are often considered deeply inappropriate today – from his apparent sang-froid about starving Indigenous people on the Prairies to embodying the quintessential Victorian confidence that people like him represented the peak of civilization. 

Well-known conservative pundit David Frum recently came to Macdonald’s defense in the U.S. magazine The Atlantic. Frum suggests a need to make allowances for the time and place in which Macdonald found himself, and the degree to which he accepted conventional thinking of his day. Residential schools were an attempt to provide a future in a modern Canada for Indigenous children. (Although, given the loveless and cruel environment in which many children found themselves, it may go too far to say the program as a whole was promoted in entirely good faith.) On the Western starvation issue, Frum says both Macdonald and his critics exaggerated the extent to which he could have done much about this given the disappearance of the buffalo on the Great Plains. The federal government was small and weak and its officials widely scattered across the West. At that time, in fact, no government had ever successfully implemented a campaign to feed an entire starving population; not until U.S. President Herbert Hoover’s Commission for the Relief of Belgium during the First World War was such a thing even tried again. 

The topic of Canada's statue removals is being discussed across all groups in Canada.
Fair comment: An interesting debate between conservative commentator David Frum (top) and National Post columnist Colby Cosh (bottom) regarding Sir John A. Macdonald’s legacy as prime minister offers a welcome respite from the rash emotionalism of most statue disputes.

National Post columnist Colby Cosh, a self-admitted Macdonald skeptic, replied to Frum in detail. Cosh acknowledges Macdonald deserves some credit for “spot-welding” a few British colonies into something called Confederation. Perhaps the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was also an essential component of this accomplishment by protecting those colonies from being absorbed by the U.S., or simply from remaining very small and weak. Beyond this, the biggest problem facing the new country of Canada was integrating Rupert’s Land, or the former Hudson’s Bay Company lands, along with the people living on those lands. Cosh suggests much more could have been done for the Indigenous people, and also that Macdonald missed the opportunity to make allies of both First Nations and Métis. Particularly in the Riel rebellions, whenever these western residents of early Canada raised strong claims for autonomy, they were treated as enemies or traitors. Cosh thus reminds us of the debate about whether the “Laurentian” settlement of Canadian issues, directed from Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto, was even in the best interests of the North or the West. It’s probably fair to say Macdonald gave a lot less thought to these matters than he did to Confederation and the CPR.

What is enlightening about Frum v. Cosh is not that either side can properly claim victory. Rather it’s that it presents us with an engaging, evidence-based debate about Macdonald’s legacy and the tenor of his time. It comprises, in fact, several potentially interesting debates covering a wide range of material. And this is in sharp contrast to most of the screaming matches that currently constitute discussion over who should be allowed to remain atop their plinths and who has to go today. Sadly, much of the argumentation now going on at the municipal level about statues and their fate can be characterized as pseudo-scientific claptrap. The “woke” seem to have adopted a Victorian-style conception of race, but in the upside-down position. Instead of white people being overwhelmingly virtuous, smart, and so on, it’s now accepted that white people were overwhelmingly cruel and duplicitous. How else could a relatively small number of Europeans have “conquered” the world? In place of reasoned debate, we have mob rule dictating the fate of statues. 

Mob rule: A statue of Macdonald at Queen’s Park in Toronto remains hidden behind a tall box (above) to protect it from the fate suffered by another statue of him in Montreal (below) that was pulled down and beheaded in 2020. (Source of both images: The Canadian Press)

Let Slip the Dogs of History

Macdonald’s statue on Parliament Hill in Ottawa may be safe for now, but another in a prominent spot at Queen’s Park in Toronto is now surrounded by a huge box to protect it from depredations. And the risk is real. Recall that an impressive statue of our first prime minister in Montreal was toppled and beheaded last summer by a violent mob. And many other representations of the man have been removed from coast to coast, quite literally: from Victoria, B.C. to Charlottetown, PEI. A brand-new statue in Picton, Ontario, where he practiced law, was taken down shortly after it was installed, and is now in storage. 

Even an attempt at presenting Macdonald and his successors as human beings rather than titans of history has failed. The Prime Minister’s Path in bucolic Baden, Ontario was designed to feature life-size statues of all of Canada’s leaders set at ground-level in poses meant to emphasize their humanity, rather than iconic status. As befitting his reputation, Macdonald’s statue was the first to be installed and given a prominent place within the park-like setting. His delightful statue had him holding two chairs – representing the disparate communities of French and English Canada he brought together in Confederation. The statue thus welcomed visitors to sit and have their picture taken with him. Last year it was removed after being repeatedly vandalized by angry activists fixated on Indigenous issues. Then, earlier this month, the other four installed prime ministers – Sir Robert Borden, Lester B. Pearson, Mackenzie King and Kim Campbell, were also taken down in the interests of “community cohesion and healing,” as per a report prepared for the local municipality. Even the sight of Campbell, Canada’s first female prime minster, is now apparently too damaging for residents to bear. 

Too horrible for 2021? The Prime Minister’s Path statue park in Baden, Ontario, was recently dismantled after repeated vandalism of Macdonald’s statue (left); among the other statues removed was one of Canada’s first female prime minster, Kim Campbell (right).

In Toronto, Egerton Ryerson, a 19th century educator for whom Ryerson University is named, has been subject to a similar degree of animosity, as his statue was also torn down and beheaded this year, his head later appearing at native protest camp in nearby Caledonia, Ontario. Ryerson has been tagged as a proponent of residential schools, although he surely deserves less blame than Macdonald. His contribution to that policy was tangential and fleeting while his accomplishments in other fields of education – particularly in reconciling the religious demands of his day with the goal of delivering quality public education – remain relevant today, even if they’ve been largely forgotten. 

And there is an odd political collision in play regarding demands to take down a statue honouring 19th century civic leader Alexander Wood in Toronto’s Gay Village. As Adam Zivo wrote recently in the National Post, the case for installing the statue in 2005 centred on Wood’s reputation “as one of the few examples of an obviously gay figure playing a leading role in Toronto’s history.” That was until intersectionality reared its head. 

A tough crowd: Despite his many accomplishments in promoting public education in early Canada, 19th century educator Egerton Ryerson was declared an oppressor and his statue torn down earlier this year. (Source: The Canadian Press)

It turns out Wood once raised money for a residential school, which instantly makes him persona non grata, regardless of his sexual orientation. And yet the facts prove stubbornly inconvenient in this case. The school in question was initially sponsored and run largely by native people themselves; only after Wood’s death was a new school, very much a typical and benighted residential school, built on the original site. Zivo complains that the Church-Wellesley Business Improvement Association, the main voice behind efforts to tear the statue down, has misrepresented the basic facts of history. Anyone who conflates those two very different schools is “propagat[ing] a narrative which not only erases Indigenous autonomy, but also … speaks over the survivors of the residential school,” he writes. 

But perhaps there are ways to deal with problematic history that don’t involve its complete obliteration. Beechwood Cemetery in Ottawa made news recently for adjusting information related to residential schools on its memorials. Cindy Blackstock, a McGill University professor, worked to ensure information was added about Dr. Peter Bryce, an official at the Department of Indian Affairs in the early 20th century who opposed residential schools. Similarly, material has been added to the plaque for Duncan Campbell Scott – largely remembered as one of the famous Confederation poets, but now described additionally as a senior civil servant who overrode Bryce’s concerns and did much to ensure the schools operated in ways we now consider shameful. These and other new or revised plaques make up the Reconciling History Tour at the cemetery.

Intersectionalism gets tricky: A group in Toronto’s Gay Village is demanding the removal of a statue of 19th century civic leader and reputed “gay pioneer” Alexander Wood due to claims he once supported a residential school. (Source of photo on left: Bradley Woods, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

A similar story is unfolding with the statue of Samuel de Champlain in Orillia, Ontario. Champlain was one of this country’s greatest explorers. He is credited with founding Port Royal in Nova Scotia, and Quebec City and personally ventured as far west as the Midland and Penetanguishene area in Ontario. For Champlain North America was a continent without countries; there was a northern territory in which the French were allied with the Algonquin, Montagnais, Innu, Algonquin and Huron/Wendat among other groups, and a southern territory which was increasingly British. 

The statue at Orillia was unveiled in 1925. It depicted Champlain on top, very much the conquering hero, with four First Nations people at his feet, a Jesuit priest on one side and a fur trader on the other. An accompanying plaque originally referred to “the advent into Ontario of the white race.” The statue was removed in 2017 for repair and restoration, but its return has since been delayed due to discussions about how to properly tell Champlain’s story. Local reports suggest it will return later this summer with an updated plaque and without the subordinate natives; as the local mayor sagely observed “all the history needs to be included — the good, the bad and the ugly.” 

History in the re-making: Explorer Samuel de Champlain’s towering statue was removed in Orillia, Ontario in 2017 for refurbishment; it is expected to return shortly with a revised plaque and fewer attendants.

Statues South of the Border

When we think of controversial statues in the U.S., the issue is not residential schools (although the Americans pioneered the concept) but rather memorials to the Confederacy. Nearly 100 such statues were removed last year in the wake of the George Floyd protests, and the pace shows no sign of slackening. For many progressives there is no “safe” way to discuss any potential virtues of Confederate heroes or their cause. If they are to be recognized for fighting a war meant to preserve slavery, then there is no excuse for their actions. 

It should be noted, however, that as recently as the 1990 PBS series The Civil War by documentary film-maker Ken Burns, there was widespread acceptance that many Confederate leaders might be considered heroic figures in an epic struggle, similar to what we might find in Homer. Burns’ commentary included Southern historians arguing that the South fought not for slavery but rather states’ rights. In their view, any state which was free to join the Union was just as free to leave it. And if that was not the case, this line of thinking goes, the Southern states would not have joined in the first place. While such a viewpoint may be selective in its use of history, it reminds us of the need for solid research and debate on such matters, rather than relying on emotion and popular narrative.

Changing narratives: Ken Burns’ acclaimed 1990 documentary series The Civil War gave voice to those who claimed the war was about states’ rights rather than slavery; today such a position is considered a heresy. 

Once-famous, now-infamous Monument Avenue in Richmond, the capital of Virginia and former capital of the Confederacy, tells the tale of this changing narrative. This massive public art display was not fully developed until the early 1900s, decades after the end of the Civil War, as a political statement about a defiant South. Of the five major Confederate statues on display, four (Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and naval commander Matthew Maury) were removed in 2020. Gen. Robert E. Lee is the last one remaining, still subject to a lengthy legal battle and frequently vandalized. The only other “big” statue that remains in this area is that of African-American tennis star Arthur Ashe, dedicated in 1996. 

Last man standing: Gen. Robert E. Lee’s towering statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia is the last of five massive memorials to the heroes of the Confederacy still in place. (Source: The Canadian Press)

And while it is commonly held that the victors write history, that narrative is also evolving. As Richmond removes its monuments to the Confederacy, it is also memorializing those who fought against slavery, often unsuccessfully. The city is already the site of one of three identical statues, representing two human beings embracing each other, referred to as the Slavery Reconciliation statues. The other two are in Liverpool, England, a city which profited greatly from the slave trade, and Benin in Africa, the point of embarkation for many slaves being taken across the Atlantic. 

Who says history is written by the victors? Nat Turner led a failed slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831 that was notable for its bloodshed; in 2017 the state authorized a statue memorializing his role in the uprising.

More controversially, a statue is planned for Nat Turner, who led one of the few notable slave rebellions in the U.S., during which an estimated 60 white people were killed in Virginia in 1831. While he is regarded as an anti-slavery activist today, his role in the resulting bloodshed cannot be overlooked. At one point he ordered a fellow rebel to murder an infant. He also chased and killed a white girl with particular brutality. And rather than improving the condition for African-American slaves, the episode actually persuaded the white South to tighten its grip. A memorial recognizing Turner’s role in the fight against slavery was approved in Virginia in 2017 as part of a larger anti-slavery monument and, despite delays, is still expected to proceed. But if Turner can be honoured in this way, what of all the other figures from the past with equally troublesome resumes?

On the move: Capt. John Mason’s presence in Connecticut has long proven problematic, but a change in venue and an updated plaque may be the solution.

In Connecticut, a memorial to Captain John Mason has long been controversial. In 1637 Mason led a force of settlers that destroyed a Pequot village of 400 people, and practically eliminated the Pequots as a nation. In 1889 a statue of Mason was erected in the village of Mystic, close to the site of the massacre; in 1996, in consultation with descendants of the Pequots, the statue was moved to the nearby town of Windsor, and a new plaque was made giving a fuller account of Mason’s career, both good and bad. As a local news report suggests, the new version of Mason’s story offers “an intentional monument to the complexities of history.” Now the statue with the updated plaque will be moved once more, this time to the grounds of a historical society. 

New Mexico and Texas both host statues of Don Juan de Oñate, last of the Spanish conquistadors and a hero to Hispano/Mexican Americans. He is credited with establishing the first European settlements in both states, although critics decry the fact he led an attack on Acoma Pueblo in 1599 that resulted in slaughter of about 1,000 people. The first statue to Oñate was erected in Alcade, north of Santa Fe, in 1991. Controversy arose in the lead up to the 400th anniversary of the Acoma massacre, and in 1998 one of Oñate’s feet was removed, a reminder of long-standing claims that he cut the feet off survivors of the massacre. The statue was removed from public view in June 2020 although two other massive statues to Oñate remain. 

A hero to many: Despite controversy over his military career, Don Juan de Oñate, the last of the Spanish conquistadors, should be seen as a symbol of unity in New Mexico and Texas, says sculptor Sonny Rivera (right).

The sculptor of all three statues, Sonny Rivera, mounts a convincing defense of Oñate as a symbol of the integration of Indigenous and Spanish people during the colonial era, noting that Spain sanctioned intermarriage during this time. Oñate himself was born in what is today north-central Mexico, descended from Spanish Jews on his mother’s side, most of whom converted to Christianity to avoid persecution. His wife was the granddaughter of Hernán Cortés, the conqueror of the Aztec Empire and great-granddaughter of Emperor Moctezuma Xocoyotzin. History is never simple. 

Refuge of the Raj

India has faced similar challenges and pressures in reconciling various groups and factions within that country’s diverse population with its complicated history. While British colonial rule imposed an admiration for everything British, independence in 1947 saw this fealty replaced with Indian values and symbols. As a result, many British statues were removed and dispersed around the world. The famous mounted statue of the future King Edward VII in Toronto’s Queen’s Park, for example, arrived from India in 1969. 

Similar to Nat Turner’s pending statue in Virginia, India has also honoured some of its own, deeply controversial and bloodstained figures. This includes Nana Sahib, the Maharajah of Bithur, who led a campaign against the British during the Indian Mutiny of 1857-1858. In particular, he was instrumental in two massacres of British women and children following the Siege of Cawnpore when he gave false promises of protection. Before 1947, there was a substantial British memorial to these events at Bibighar emphasizing the tragedy of the British casualties. Later, this was demolished and replaced by a number of memorials honouring the mutineers, including Nana Sahib. 

All history is complicated: The legacy of Nana Sahib, Maharajah of Bithur (top), is marred by his connection to the treacherous massacre of women and children following the Siege of Cawnpore during the Indian Mutiny of 1857-1858 (bottom).

And yet not all problematic British memorials in India have been obliterated, replaced or shipped off to distant lands. Warren Hastings was the first de facto Governor-General of Bengal and a key figure in the early years of the British Raj. He was also impeached by the British Parliament for embezzlement and other crimes during his time in India, with the proceedings led by the noted conservative thinker Edmund Burke. (Hastings was eventually acquitted.) Despite all these negative associations, however, a very attractive memorial to Hastings can be found on the grounds of the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata

In fact this splendid facility offers a possible solution to statue controversies all over the world. Completed in 1921 to honour the life of Queen Victoria, the park-like setting and graceful architecture of the main building offers visitors a chance to contemplate the likenesses of many of the most problematic names in Indian colonial history. There is a statue of Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis, and nephew of Edward Cornwallis, whose name and image were recently expunged from Halifax. Maj-Gen. Robert Clive – famous as Clive of India – is there as well. Clive’s treacheries, violence and larceny far exceeded what Hastings was ever accused of. Yet no one is calling for these heads to be removed. In fact, the entire complex is considered a valuable part of the country’s cultural heritage. According to its enthusiastic official government website “the Victoria Memorial is possibly the most awesome reminder of the Raj to be found in India.” In the 1970s a separate gallery was added telling the story of Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, a city that flourished during the colonial era. With its vast mixture of religions and ways of life, perhaps India has much to teach Canada about how to remember the old and new, as well as conqueror and conquered. 

The Witt Test

This brief survey reveals several possible ways to deal with statues of complicated historical figures without allowing the decision to be made by a mob with a hack saw and length of rope. Simply engaging in extensive public debate, as per Frum v. Cosh, is one way to channel energy away from violent beheadings. Adding extra information or modifying displays, as has been the case with Champlain, Bryce, Scott and Mason, allows more voices to be heard, which also seems fair. And India’s Victoria Memorial provides the option of a statuary refuge where past figures can be given general immunity from their crimes of history in a peaceful and contemplative setting. There is, however, another possibility: come up with a dispassionate and rigorous system to judge all figures from the past and let the evidence determine who is worthy of memorialization and who is not.   

In 2016 Yale University gave historian John Fabian Witt the task of figuring out whether Sen. John C. Calhoun, a central figure in the lead-up to the Confederacy, should continue to have his name recognized on campus with Calhoun College. Witt’s report is a marvel of clear thinking on this fraught topic. It begins by characterizing renaming exercises as “exceptional events” that should not be used frivolously or to make political statements. “Renaming has often reflected excessive confidence in moral orthodoxies,” he observes, pointing with caution to the Soviet Union. He then lays out four questions meant to judge a historical figure’s actions by both the standards of his or her time and contemporary values. Answering each requires substantial research and documentation, rather than hair-trigger emotionalism. And while his remit was to decide on the names of buildings at Yale, Witt’s four questions work just as well for statues in Canada. Here, modified for the task at hand, is a Canadian Witt Test: 

A refuge for dangerous statues: Kolkata’s famed Victoria Memorial (above) offers a graceful and pleasant setting for some of the British Raj’s most controversial figures, including politician Warren Hastings (left) and Maj-Gen. Robert Clive (right). (Source of top photo: Subhrajyoti07, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)
  • Is the principal legacy of the person fundamentally at odds with Canadian values? 
  • Was the relevant principal legacy of the person significantly contested during their lifetime? 
  • At the time the statue was erected, was the person being honoured for reasons fundamentally at odds with Canadian values? 
  • Does the statue play a substantial role in forming community? 

Note that the first two questions require a determination of the “principal legacy” of the historical figure in question. This raises the standard of proof beyond evidence that someone might have once briefly supported a concept now considered repugnant, as has been the case with Ryerson or Wood. And it forces Macdonald’s critics to grapple with his accomplishments as a whole, rather than simply focusing on his impact on Indigenous people. This system also requires a clear enunciation of Canadian values then and now and consideration of what public art means for the public-at-large.  

The Witt Test: In 2016 Yale historian John Fabian Witt (left) developed a four-part test to determine if Sen. John C. Calhoun (right), a key figure in the birth of the Confederacy, deserved to have his name preserved on a Yale college; his system is equally useful in determining the relevance of statues of historical figures in Canada.

Using the Witt test, Yale declared Calhoun unworthy of memorialization and removed his name from campus. This was because his principal legacy was determined to be the promotion of a white supremacist view of America. Calhoun called slavery “a positive good” and claimed the Declaration of Independence erred in stating all men were created equal. It was a position strongly contested in his time, as well as ours. It is hard to argue with Yale’s conclusion because it carries the weight of evidence and offers due process to the accused. The University of Mississippi has also used the Witt Test to decide its own historical controversies, and its use was briefly discussed in Halifax as a way to decide on the fate of Cornwallis’ statue, before less-rational heads prevailed. 

Applying the Witt Test to Canadian figures such as Macdonald, Ryerson and all the others now in peril of being removed from the national landscape offers a rational and fact-based method for making these decisions. It may be true that not every figure from our past deserves the honour of a public statue. But their legacies ought to be given a chance to speak in their defense. Surely we owe our predecessors that much. 

Lloyd W. Robertson holds a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto and has taught at the post-secondary level in the U.S. and Canada. He writes on Canadian and U.S. politics and history. 

Source of main image: The Canadian Press

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