A vandalized statue of St. Junipero Serra in San Francisco is seen June 19, 2020. CNS photo/David Zandman via Reuters

Glen Argan: Monuments should be used for education

  • September 10, 2020

Statues typically honour those who have done great deeds. They are built so we do not forget our past. To forget the past is to lose hope for a better future. Without a memory of the past, our only vision of reality is that of the present. We are stuck in the ideology of today, reduced to a one-dimensional world. Memory opens horizons.

The totalitarian impulse is to kill the past to destroy all consideration of alternative ways of organizing society. The first act of a totalitarian government is to rewrite history, airbrushing out events and philosophies which inspire thinking. Thinking, after all, easily leads to dissent.

Yet the past is always morally ambiguous. What was thought to be glory 100 years ago may be regarded as infamy today. We must continually rewrite history, not to erase the past, but to see the past through new eyes.

Statue vandalism and destruction are now widespread as the descendants of the victims of past oppression strive to strip the honour given to supposed heroes of our history. The toppling of statues of Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, is but one example.

Macdonald has been lionized for his leading role in the formation of Canada by uniting the colonies of British North America. He led a government which bought the land of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the Northwest and built the Canadian Pacific Railway to unify the far-flung land. His National Policy aimed to create a dynamic economy by extracting resources from the northwest for eastern industry, thus solidifying independence from the United States.

Seen in that light, Macdonald was perhaps Canada’s greatest nation builder. However, that is only half the story.

Macdonald wrongly treated the northwest as empty space to be populated by settlers who farmed the land and extracted resources. Opening the Prairie west to development included the military conquest of the Métis communities at Red River and Batoche. Such “nation building” led to the political execution of the Métis leader, Louis Riel. It meant the eradication of the buffalo from the western plains, the relegation of the First Peoples to small, economically unproductive reserves and the establishment of residential schools and the Indian Act whose express purpose was to destroy Indigenous culture. Macdonald and his cabinet ministers accepted large bribes from the company which sought a charter to build the transcontinental railway. Chinese workers were imported to build the railway through the mountains, resulting in the deaths of many of those workers.

Canadians should never forget this history, both the good and the bad. The effects of Macdonald’s actions are still being felt, especially with the economic, cultural and spiritual destruction of Indigenous peoples.

It is grossly unfair and inaccurate to portray Macdonald as an unalloyed hero. Yet, destroying and vandalizing statues of Macdonald is a polarizing action and a missed opportunity. Macdonald cannot be erased from Canada’s history nor should he be. Monuments erected to laud Macdonald and others from that period should become places of education where people will come to a fuller understanding of the founding of Canada.

The Jewish people show us how to better appreciate the past. The Old Testament tells of the infidelities, sins and mayhem of which the nation and its leaders were guilty. It presents the Babylonian exile not as a political event but as God’s punishment for a people gone astray. The Old Testament is truth telling, not propaganda.

Great efforts have been made to remember the Holocaust by turning death camps at Auschwitz, Dachau and elsewhere into memorials so the horrors done to the Jewish people will never be forgotten.

The great Jewish writer Elie Wiesel called memory a blessing. Remember that the people were slaves in Egypt, exiles in Babylon and faced with extermination during the Holocaust. “The fear of forgetting: the main obsession of all those who have passed through the universe of the damned. The enemy relied on people’s disbelief and forgetfulness.”

Statues that only honour Canada’s first prime minister are offensive. They whitewash the suffering and exploitation of millions. But instead of destroying such statues, can we not use them to paint a fuller picture of Canada and to create hope for a more just future?

(Argan lives in Edmonton.)

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