Perils of “Presentism”

Plaque Removal: Ottawa’s Naughty List Puts the Titans of Canadian History on Trial

Larry Ostola
October 6, 2022
In normal times, it would be a relatively simple matter to agree on clear and factual information about the people, places and events that shaped our country’s history. But these are not normal times. In our angry and judgmental woke world, the past must be repeatedly condemned, if not erased altogether. The latest example of this skewed and politicized process comes from the federal government’s ongoing review of the plaques and official designations that commemorate Canada’s most important historical figures and sites. Taking a close look at some of the giants from our past, historian Larry Ostola considers this latest threat to Canada’s collective memory and how his discipline has been led astray by “presentism.”
Perils of “Presentism”

Plaque Removal: Ottawa’s Naughty List Puts the Titans of Canadian History on Trial

Larry Ostola
October 6, 2022
In normal times, it would be a relatively simple matter to agree on clear and factual information about the people, places and events that shaped our country’s history. But these are not normal times. In our angry and judgmental woke world, the past must be repeatedly condemned, if not erased altogether. The latest example of this skewed and politicized process comes from the federal government’s ongoing review of the plaques and official designations that commemorate Canada’s most important historical figures and sites. Taking a close look at some of the giants from our past, historian Larry Ostola considers this latest threat to Canada’s collective memory and how his discipline has been led astray by “presentism.”
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You can find them sprinkled throughout Canada – on bloody battlefields, scenic landscapes, grand edifices and humble homes. Throughout the country lie thousands of small bronze plaques waiting patiently to tell their story about Canada’s rich and complicated past to passersby and history buffs alike.

This metallic rendering of our country’s heritage began in 1919 with the creation of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC). Among the first plaques placed was that of Fort Anne in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, once the most fought-over spot in Canada – it saw 13 battles and changed hands seven times during the colonial era. Since then, the collection has grown to over 2,200 historically notable places, people and events.

Today Canada’s official list of historic sites includes everything from the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa to the grain elevators of Inglis, Manitoba. Among the national historic persons listed are Anne of Green Gables author Lucy Maud Montgomery, Blackfoot warrior Chief Crowfoot and Marathon of Hope runner Terry Fox, as well as numerous politicians and business leaders. Recognized historical events include many crucial military encounters plus other notable moments such as the first patent issued in Canada (for a washing machine in 1824) and the founding of the Montreal Canadiens in 1909. Also recognized are several places and events outside the country, including Canada’s momentous victory at Vimy Ridge in the First World War and the Normandy Landings of the Second World War.

Telling Canada’s story, one plaque at a time: The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) has designated over 2,200 national historic sites, persons and events, including (clockwise from top left) Fort Anne in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia; Marathon of Hope runner Terry Fox; the first patent issued in Canada, (for a washing machine, pictured, invented in 1824); and the Vimy Ridge battlefield in France. (Sources of photos: (top left) Annapolis Royal; (top right) Richard Keeling, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

These historical commemorations are all marked with small bronze plaques containing short informative texts in English and French, and other languages where appropriate. Recommendations regarding national historic designations are made by the HSMBC to the federal environment minister, who has authority over Parks Canada, which administers the program.

Throughout most of its first century, HSMBC plaques focused on Canada’s conventional political, military and architectural history. In recent years, however, the emphasis has shifted towards greater representation of lesser-known voices and experiences. Between 1999 and 2015, the number of Indigenous historic designations increased by 31 percent, those commemorating women rose by 81 percent and of “ethnocultural communities” by 112 percent. This broadening of perspective is commendable, as it improves everyone’s understanding and conception of Canadian history. Now, however, rather than adding further to our historical record, it appears Ottawa may be planning to subtract from it.

Conflict and Controversy

In 2019, then-Environment Minister Catherine McKenna announced a framework for Canada’s commemoration process meant to create “a new way of sharing history.” Included in this process was a systematic review of the thousands of existing official plaques and historic designations. For anyone who’s been paying attention to the virus of cancellations that has raged throughout Canadian history in recent years, such a review by the Liberal government carries with it ominous portents. McKenna herself outlined an explicit political agenda in introducing the plan, claiming that “Parks Canada is uniquely positioned to advance reconciliation and to confront the legacy of colonialism.”

“Confronting the legacy of colonialism”: Former Environment Minister Catherine McKenna’s 2019 systematic review of Canada’s national historic designations marks a departure from the apolitical processes of the past. (Source of left photo: World Economic Forum)

After several years of public input and internal discussion, this official review process has yielded a list of 208 historical individuals, locations and events considered problematic enough to warrant further investigation – and possible cancellation. This list, first publicly revealed by independent media outlet Blacklock’s Reporter, contains some of the most iconic names from Canada’s past, including Fathers of Confederation Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Hector-Louis Langevin, inventor Alexander Graham Bell, Hudson’s Bay Company governor Sir George Simpson and explorer Jacques Cartier. There are also many lesser-known entries, such as the Bar U Ranch in Alberta’s foothills and the mass immigration of English settlers from Yorkshire to New Brunswick in the 1770s.

According to Parks Canada, there are four reasons an historic person, place or event has been placed on its naughty list: terminology, absence, colonial assumptions and controversial beliefs and behaviour. The first two seem innocuous enough. Terminology can evolve over time; the word “Indian” rather than “Indigenous” is now grating to modern sensibilities. Absence refers to facts or context considered missing from original designations. If new historical research points to errors or omissions in a plaque’s text, then such a correction seems similarly uncontroversial. In fact, revisions of these sorts have been carried out for many years without any need for a systematic review. Long after its unveiling, for example, the plaque commemorating the Rideau Canal was updated to include mention of the Irish and French-Canadian labourers who helped build it.

The current review differs sharply from past processes, however, due to its inclusion of two additional reasons for reconsideration: colonial assumptions and controversial beliefs and behaviours. Both terms contain a vast train of progressive ideological baggage, raising the spectre of a new woke perspective being imposed on what was formerly an apolitical, fact-driven process.

Parks Canada’s website says the term colonial assumptions refers to “designations related to colonial and religious leaders and their actions, and to settlement and nation building from an overly European perspective. Over one dozen forts and citadels and numerous battlefields are thus under scrutiny for their colonial content. But while recognition of the many North American wars between British, French and American colonial forces obviously reflects a “European perspective,” it could hardly be otherwise. These conflicts were fought mainly by Europeans or their descendants, using mainly European weapons and tactics, and played an unquestionably crucial role in shaping Canada. Where there’s a need to add information or perspective to such designations, this could presumably be handled under the heading of “absence.” Why make it about something as opaque as “colonial assumptions”?

The naughty list: As first revealed by Blacklock’s Reporter, Parks Canada has assembled a list of 208 national historic individuals, sites and events up for review due to conflict with contemporary values or standards, including Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone.

Also problematic is the fourth category of “controversial beliefs,” which the Parks Canada website elaborates as including “views, actions and activities condemned by today’s society.” Fourteen historic persons are identified in this way. Perhaps in keeping with the Trudeau government’s commitment to gender equality, more than half are women – mostly early 20th century suffragettes. But interpreting past figures and events by today’s standards, rather than the standards prevailing in their own era, raises numerous and significant problems. “The past is a foreign country,” British novelist L.P. Hartley once wrote, “they do things differently there.” It is a wise adage that Canada’s current historical revisionists should not overlook.

Among the most pressing questions: who gets to decide on the definition of today’s standards? And when does the clock start? Consider that the Red River Expedition of 1870 – a ponderous military journey that put an end to Louis Riel’s first Métis Rebellion – was designated a national historic event by the HSMBC just five years ago. Now it has already found its way onto the list of problematic designations. Whatever Parks Canada might mean by “today’s society,” it is a fickle and ever-changing thing.

In response to written questions from C2C Journal, Parks Canada media relations advisor Megan Hope replied that “history is not being erased through the review of these designations.” However, C2C’s request for clarification on key terms such as “overly European,” “colonial assumptions” and “actions and activities condemned by today’s society,” as well as how they might be applied to the review process, were left unanswered.

“Extraordinary circumstances”: While the federal government downplays the possibility that its review will result in the removal of any existing designations, the aggressive cancellation of Sir John A. Macdonald across the country in recent years suggests reason to be wary. (Source of photo: Global News)

What we do know is that inclusion on Parks Canada’s black list will result in one of three possible outcomes. Following further review, the historic designation may remain unchanged. It could be amended in some way. Or the entire designation could be revoked. This final option would entail a decision confirming that the person, place or event in question is no longer considered to be of national historic significance. The original framework document admits “the merit of some designations” may be called into question during its review, but insists complete removal is unlikely. “Barring extraordinary circumstances, the Board will not recommend revoking existing designations,” it states, “but is committed to reviewing the national historic significance of existing designations and updating them to reflect current scholarship and public understanding.”

While this might sound reassuring, anyone with a passing acquaintance of how Canadian history has been treated by governments and public institutions over the past few years cannot help but conclude that we already live in a time of “extraordinary circumstances.” Just a decade ago Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, was a much-loved historical figure amply represented on buildings, schools and statutes throughout the land. Today, as a result of aggressive and angry pressure from anti-history activists and left-wing politicians, Macdonald’s name and visage is being steadily obliterated throughout the country – a country that he almost single-handedly willed into existence.

Presentism at Large

This outbreak of self-indulgent historical revulsion can be traced in part to the rise of “presentism” in the field of history. Presentism refers to interpretations of the past that are dominated by present-day attitudes, assumptions and prejudices without regard for context or attenuating perspectives. Unfortunately, presentism has come to dominate much of academia and popular culture across North America, with only sporadic and ineffective pushback.

In August, James Sweet, president of the American Historical Association, identified presentism as a major reason for the precipitous decline in enrolment in history courses at American universities. Sweet expressed grave concerns about the impact of this narrow-minded view of history, critiquing in particular the New York Times’1619 Project,” which falsely portrays America as being essentially defined by its enslavement of blacks. “If history is only those stories from the past that confirm current political positions, all manner of political hacks can claim historical expertise,” Sweet wrote. “This is not history; it is dilettantism.” Sweet also accused figures on the political right of similar acts of historical revisionism.

“This is not history; it is dilettantism”: In August, James Sweet, president of the American Historical Association, outlined how “presentism” is destroying his profession; just days later he took it all back after being mobbed on social media.

Such is the dominance of presentism, however, that almost immediately after speaking truth to power – and doing so in a balanced way – Sweet took it all back with a grovelling apology in which he said he “sincerely regret[s] the way I have alienated some of my Black colleagues” for his critique of the practice of history. The controversy continues to swirl, including an excellent defence of Sweet by New York Times columnist Bret Stephens.

Given these pressures, it seems necessary to remain concerned for the preservation of Canadian history. Despite assurances that designations will be removed only in “exceptional circumstances,” there remains a pressing risk that the curation of Canada’s history will similarly be at the mercy of – to use Sweet’s pre-apology phrase – “all manner of political hacks.” It should also be kept in mind that current Environment Minister (and former Greenpeace Canada activist) Steven Guilbeault has the final say in all designation decisions.

It seems equally noteworthy that many other historical figures who appear just as controversial as those up for review do not appear on the naughty list. Here we include Liberal Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier (responsible for a large increase in the Chinese head tax, among other discriminatory immigration policies), Quebec nationalist Catholic cleric Lionel Groulx (an outspoken anti-Semite) and Indigenous leader (and well-documented slave owner) Joseph Brant. The apparently arbitrary nature of the list calls into question the entire process.

Escaping the Inquisition: While the federal government’s review includes many titans of Canadian history, it is curious that other equally-controversial historic figures are not on the list, including Liberal Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier (left), Quebec Catholic cleric Lionel Groulx (middle) and Indigenous leader Joseph Brant (right). (Sources of photos: (left) The Canadian Encyclopedia; (middle) Courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-16657)

To illustrate the grave threat posed by presentism in limiting Canadians’ ability to gain a balanced understanding and appreciation of their own history, let us briefly consider three prominent Canadian historical figures currently at risk of official cancellation.

Samuel de Champlain

The life of Samuel de Champlain is inseverable from “colonial assumptions.” Often referred to as the “Father of New France,” Champlain was the pivotal figure in France’s colonization of North America, first in Acadia and later at Quebec City, which he founded in 1608. As befits this status, there are monuments and numerous plaques erected in Champlain’s honour throughout Canada and the northeastern U.S. According to his plaque in Quebec City, “He formed important alliances with Aboriginal peoples, expanded the French sphere of influence south to Lake Champlain and west to the Great Lakes, and made Québec the centre of the colony. Champlain explored and mapped large areas of the continent, and in his travel journals left an invaluable record of his era for future generations.”

Colonial assumptions to the max: Early 17th century explorer Samuel de Champlain was a pivotal figure in the colonization of North America and a pioneer in the use of firearms in Indigenous warfare – should that count against his legacy?

All of this is entirely correct. Left unsaid, however, is that Champlain stands as a champion of colonial military power. It was he who introduced firearms to Indigenous warfare in the early 17th century in the northern part of the continent. His wielding of his harquebus in 1609 in alliance with the Huron in their conflict with the Iroquois was a crucial moment both on the battlefield and in historical terms, setting the stage for what would become, from an Indigenous perspective, an increasingly disruptive and deadly European presence. Yet removing Champlain from Canada’s story because of his colonial implications would create a yawning factual and contextual gulf, rendering it all-but-impossible to understand the foundational events of the early 1600s.

Nellie Mooney McClung

Nellie McClung had a distinguished career as an author, women’s rights activist and politician. Her current HSMBC plaque notes that, “As a politician and public lecturer, she campaigned vigorously for social reform and women’s rights.” She was a Liberal MLA for Edmonton in the Alberta legislature and the first female member of the CBC Board of Governors. Most significantly, McClung was among a quintet of determined suffragettes who succeeded in opening Canada’s Senate to women. This “Famous Five” demanded that women be recognized as “persons” under the law, and their legal case was successfully concluded in 1929 when the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council ruled in their favour. A monument featuring McClung and the other four members of the group has a place of honour in downtown Ottawa and Calgary. In 2009, the Senate voted to make all five honorary senators in recognition of their efforts.

The reputation of trail-blazing writer, suffragist and Famous Five member Nellie McClung has come under fire lately for her support of eugenics and other controversial views. (Source of photo: The Nellie McClung Foundation)

Like many other women of her age and class, however, McClung engaged in other activities that are regarded less favourably today. In particular, she was a strong proponent of the once-popular but now discredited theory of eugenics. McClung supported Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act, which remained in force for over 40 years and allowed for the legal sterilization of the mentally disabled. She has also been linked to other equally distasteful ideas regarding racial hierarchies. Despite how objectionable all this may seem today, McClung’s contributions to the women’s rights movement cannot be understated. Without her, the story of Canadian feminism is incomplete.

Sir William Osler

A member of the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, Sir William Osler enjoyed a distinguished career as both a teacher and medical clinician. As his plaque notes, “He was…an inspiring teacher and prolific writer, he became a major influence on the practice and philosophy of medicine on both sides of the Atlantic. Osler’s essays won a wide popular audience which made him one of the most famous medical figures of his day.” Among the innovations Osler pioneered were the bedside teaching method and the establishment of medical residency, both of which are still in use today. Osler strongly believed that his students should pay close attention to what their patients told them. “Listen to your patient,” Osler repeatedly advised. “He is telling you the diagnosis.” His book The Principles and Practice of Medicine was considered an essential reference of its time and he is often regarded as one of the world’s greatest physicians.

Top doc? Sir William Osler pioneered many aspects of medical education that remain best practices today, but his advocacy for a “white man’s country” has left a stain on his reputation.

Like many other historical figures, however, Osler had a less exemplary side to his character. In public and private statements, he said many damning things about race, including derogatory comments about Latin Americans, blacks and Indigenous people. In a 1914 speech Osler spoke of the need to create a “white man’s country.” Like McClung, he held views that are considered inexcusable today. And like McClung and Champlain, he also had an outsized impact on the story of Canada and its place in the world.

Gigantism as the Solution

History clearly does not respond well to ideological purity tests. On close inspection, many of the most influential and historically significant Canadians from our past turn out to have some very large skeletons in their closets. Should views considered objectionable by today’s standards negate or overshadow their other, more positive achievements? And if we expunge them along with the places and events they shaped – as the Parks Canada review process allows – what exactly would be left of our history?

Perhaps the controversy over Osler offers a way forward. In 2020 the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) stoked this debate with an article demanding Osler be stripped of his current appreciation on account of his racist views in favour of other, lesser-known but more racially-diverse doctors. “Rather than continuing to heap recognition on Osler and other White men whose names still reverberate through medical school lecture halls today, we can acknowledge the accomplishments of racialized physicians who managed to make important contributions despite racism,” wrote Nav Persaud, an associate editor at the journal.

How to see further: Sir Isaac Newton, one of the greatest scientists of all time, admitted that he “stood upon the shoulders of giants”; a similar sense of humility is recommended for Canadians who profess to judge their historical antecedents by present-day standards.

In a subsequent letter to the editor of the CMAJ Gregory A. Kline, a professor of clinical medicine at the University of Calgary, defended Osler and offered “gigantism” as a possible cure for Persaud’s outbreak of presentism. Kline was referring to Sir Isaac Newton’s famous line that, “If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” (Even Newton, perhaps the most impressive scientific mind the world has ever seen, has lately come under attack for his own “colonial assumptions.”) As Kline wrote, Osler is widely recognized within his field as a “‘giant’ in that he embraced the concept that medicine and medical education should be based on science.” Acknowledging this contribution is not akin to conferring sainthood, Kline noted. But it should entail some degree of grace and humility. “Giants may have problems that need diagnosing and correcting, but we still need to stand on their shoulders to see beyond the barriers that otherwise stand in our way,” he added. It seems a very reasonable solution.

Champlain, McClung, Osler and the 205 other people, places and events listed as problematic and at risk of cancellation stand before us as among the giants of Canadian history. For those historically significant individuals, rather than succumbing to the myopic demands of presentism and chopping them down to insignificance, we need to take a step back and appreciate their historical stature, their immense contributions to Canada, and the context in which they existed. Doing so doesn’t mean we necessarily agree with everything they ever said or did. Where their actions or words diverge from accepted modern standards – or perhaps even from the standards of their own day – it is appropriate to point that out. But that must not be allowed to negate their other monumental achievements. If we are standing on their shoulders today, at the very least we owe them a plaque on which to rest their feet.

Larry Ostola served as Vice-President of Heritage Conservation and Commemoration at Parks Canada as well as Director of Museums and Heritage Services for the City of Toronto; he is the editor of a 2021 collection of James Wolfe’s personal correspondence, Your Most Obedient and Affectionate Son,” and co-author of the 2008 book Military History of Quebec City 1608-2008.”

Main image shows the Famous Five monument in Calgary’s Olympic Plaza, featuring the likenesses of Emily Murphy, Henrietta Edwards, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney, and Nellie McClung. All five are on the federal government’s list of problematic national historic persons. Source: Courtesy of Frances Wright.

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