When We Finish with the Statues and Street Names, Let’s Get On with the Hard Part

While some historians prevaricate and wring their hands about the necessity, or lack thereof, of tearing down statues that no longer match contemporary values, I find myself mostly indifferent. I’ve never been much for symbolic victories in the face of real, material, oppression and violence. I realize that as a settler, my viewpoint is inherently limited. In what follows, I am going to confine myself to talking principally about settler involvement in these debates about statues, not to sideline indigenous perspectives, but to avoid the grievous error of speaking for First Nations, Metis or Inuit peoples. My goal is to hopefully move the discussion beyond the partisan echo chamber of yet another ongoing culture war in North American settler society. For if this issue remains tethered to the culture war it is almost certain to undermine any chance at progress on reconciliation.

Let me be clear from the outset, realizing that such clarity will lead to some inevitable trolling from the populist left and right: I do not think we should be honouring people like John A. Macdonald, Egerton Ryerson, Queen Victoria, or any historically significant individuals whose values and beliefs are so clearly incommensurate with those professed (if not followed) in the present. Thus, I generally support the removal of their statues and the process of renaming as a form of reclamation by those who have been subject to violence and oppression (cue right-wing outrage about “erasing” history or heritage). That said, I think treating this as some kind of victory over the ongoing violence of colonialism, capitalism, or white supremacy is a political and historical error of the first order (cue the left-wing outrage that I am somehow trying to slow down systemic change that would erase inequalities I directly benefit from). Before the chorus of denunciation begins, give me a moment to explain…

Firstly, history isn’t a definitive balance sheet of the past. Professional historians with any modicum of credibility and skill know this. It can’t be, because unlike financial reports, we are always working with incomplete and imperfect evidence. Historians must make due with what Walter Benjamin called the detritus of the past in reconstructing what actually (probably) happened. Thus, even well-documented individual lives can really only be rendered as 2D-sprites, not 3D-models. Talking about whether John A. Macdonald should have a statue isn’t a historical question, it is a political question about the past. Certainly history can be used judiciously to help us make choices in our present on who or what to commemorate, or tear down, but it isn’t actually able to definitively settle these disputes, as at a certain point they stop being historical questions in any meaningful sense. Consider, for instance, the measured Canada Day statement by the Canadian Historical Association. It essentially amounts to an acknowledgment that historians in Canada have been reluctant to use the term genocide to describe the treatment of Canada’s Frist Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples and that this has made us complicit in the continuation of these systems. They highlight that this was incorrect as the evidence clearly shows that the Canadian Government and its predecessor states engaged in a genocide against Canada’s Indigenous peoples. They end by imploring us all to do the hard work of redressing the ongoing violence and injustice of the present through concrete action. As historians will tell you, what’s not there is also just as important as what is: there is no mention of what to do about statues and other commemorations. This omission exists for two reasons, in my view: (1) While public historians might be interested in historical questions about who or what gets commemorated at particular points in time, including in the present moment, their focus isn’t on who should or shouldn’t be commemorated so much as it is focused on how those debates play out and why people take up one position or another. They might weigh in at the end of such an analysis, but are unlikely to provide the kind of one-sided political treatise activists on both sides of the debate are looking for. (2) Tearing down or preserving statues is high on symbolism but low on actual impact with respect to Canada’s genocide of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples. Historians, perhaps better than some of the other disciplines in the humanities, make strong distinctions between the real and concrete and the imagined and symbolic.  

In what follows, I want to talk directly about the settlers like myself who are involved in this politics of commemoration. There seems to be pretty thin history in the wisdom of the crowds either pulling down statues or issuing poison-laced pleas about “preserving national heritage.” What I’m seeing is a populist culture war with only a vague interest in selectively mining the past for anecdotes that can reinforce each sides preferred political program. The past shows up a great deal in these discussions, but history, not so much. This isn’t necessarily evidence that the work of dismantling symbols of colonialism is only superficial; it is just something we need to be aware of when we start trying to untangle the significance of what is going on.

To be clear, I am not claiming that past injustices, because they happened in the past, do not matter to the present. They absolutely do in visceral and direct ways as the recollections of residential school survivors or the heartwrenching discovery of the unmarked graves of children on the grounds of these former institutions vividly brings home. Nor am I saying that groups on both sides of the debate don’t sincerely care about the concrete issues related to reconciliation (even if they think about it in opposing ways). Rather, I am saying that slaying (or preserving) past villains (or heroes) in their monumental form provides a satisfying yet sanitized space in which one can seem to be doing something about a present issue without actually risking anything. The past becomes a place for proxy wars regarding issues we are too callow to address in the present through meaningful change. The downside of all this is that little real progress is made. Worse still, these battles over symbols can escalate in ways that don’t necessarily get us any closer to sincerely working towards reconciliation.

On the Malahat highway, for instance, a Totem Pole was set on fire with grafitti written near by proclaiming “one statue-one totem pole,” implying that it was retribution for the toppling of a statue of James Cook the day before. Don Tom, Chief of the Tsartlip First Nation spoke directly about how this ongoing culture war over commemoration has the potential to put Indigenous peoples in danger:

While the removal of the James Cook statue reminds the public of our presence, it is a two-edged political tool…On one hand, it pushes the envelope and forces the public to confront the real issues. On the other, it can embolden racists, sway moderates, and put Indigenous people in harm’s way. We support calls for the cancellation of Canada Day and we support those who are grieving the loss of our children, but we do not support the destruction of property in their name.”  

This should give anyone involved in the ongoing commemorative street theatre pause for reflection about the unintended impact of these tactics.

Maybe I’m naive or just too much of a philistine to appreciate the role of symbolic acts in remedying concrete problems. But there isn’t much that a headless granite of Queen Victoria can contribute to providing appropriate levels of funding for health care, education, housing and clean water for Canada’s First Peoples. I imagine it might feel good to splash that red paint across a lifeless bronze of John A. Macdonald, but this does not result in better resources to support recovery for Indgenous peoples dealing with the trauma of residential schools or the ongoing theft of indigenous children by the “child welfare” system. One wonders if it achieves much beyond simply keeping hope alive about progress on these issues when nothing concrete seems forthcoming. Undoubtedly, as many indigenous commentators have pointed out, the fact that such symbolic actions is the language of the unheard is an injunction that we should listen solemnly and seriously. But are settlers really listening?

On the other side of the debate, perhaps statements defending John A. Macdonald give some on the right a sense of security knowing that the sacred cow of their national mythos can somehow be preserved. Macdonald, as conservatives describe him, certainly feeds into the ideological narrative that let’s their members and operatives sleep easy at night. Canada, they claim, would be impossible without a strong, conniving leader who will resort to state violence and pork-barrel politics to keep order. Under such a frame the violence and corruption at the heart of Macdonald’s Canada suddenly becomes a warm and comforting blanket central to the conservative sense of purpose. Regardless, this isn’t history; it’s just an ideological fairytale Canadian settlers have been telling themselves since the memorial books and obituaries started rolling off the presses following Macdonald’s death in 1891.

I am not unsympathetic to why we end up fighting about the present by displacing these conflicts to the past. I am just unsure what it is ultimately achieving beyong the world of symbols.

What I can’t help but notice are the silences in all this. The way news reports on statue removal and the soundbites therein never seem to include specific demands for action on the very concrete and systemic violence that continues against Canada’s First Nations, Metis, and Inuit communities. The way that these dramatic events give right-wing populists, like Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, an opportunity to derail reconciliation and an excuse to wrap themselves in the flag and talk about other historical events that purportedly show Canada’s tolerance and acceptance of other ethno-cultural and racialized communities. All this to help them avoid talking directly about the genocide perpetrated against Canada’s indigenous peoples and the limits of their own narrow view of “equality.”

In his Canada Day address, Justin Trudeau had some thoughtful words about doing better as a country and reflecting, yet no policy proposals or funds seemed to back this verbal injunction. The Government of Canada’s appeal against the Canadian Human Right Tribunal’s ruling that they increase funding for First Nations’ children to national standards, carries on through the court system. In short, the theatre of statues and commemorations, while constituting interesting material for settler journalists and even better opportunities for settler politicians to build their brand, is starting to look like a lot of empty gestures that promise to symbolically absolve our collective guilt while ignoring the materiality of the ongoing violence and oppression experienced by Indigenous Peoples.

After the red children’s handprints dry and begin to flake from the bases of discarded monuments, and the orange shirts get packed away, will Canadians convince themselves they’ve done something important to address the historic and ongoing violence of settler colonialism? “It’s a start” some will say. The problem is we have been “starting” for so long now, yet settler colonialism, white supremacy, and socio-economic oppression persists. There is always so much rich symbolism plastered across the instagram stories and twitter feeds of the nation. The time for symbolic gestures has long passed. We must finally get down to the hard work of fixing this country. To do this we need an unflinching, critical, and humanizing history of Canada’s past to inform our approach to reconciliation, not a cherry-picked collection of decontextualized facts and anecdotes reducible to 30-second clips that conflates sounding critical with critical analysis. We don’t need more grist for the culture war mill in the form of bombastic symbolic street performances from the left, or thinly veiled accusations of treason and counter-protests from the right. We need nuanced and actionable critique. A history like this would not see Canada’s past as a comforting tally of progressive achievements, nor as an endless list of unatoned sins. It would give Canadians insight on where action is most needed as well as on how to best listen and respond to those who have been historically marginalized or oppressed. It would create the space for real dialogue and national reconciliation. Tear down the statues, or move them, rename streets, or rededicate them. That’s all fine by me, one way or the other, but let’s not get caught up in the dramatic performance when the necessary work of realizing a better Canada waits just beyond the theatre doors. The First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples of Turtle Island have long been insisting Canadian settlers start living up to their words with deeds. Let’s make sure they don’t have to wait for the next settler culture war for a chance at concrete and lasting action on reconciliation.

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