Controversial Historical Statues: Should They Stay or Go?
Statues and monuments are the latest battleground issue on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border.
In Halifax, Mi’kmaq protesters have asked that the statue of Edward Cornwallis be removed. Cornwallis, the founder of the city, issued a bounty on Mi’kmaq scalps in retaliation over an attack on colonists, and some Mi’kmaq view his actions as a form of genocide.
Indigenous groups are also calling for the renaming of Ryerson University because the university’s namesake, Egerton Ryerson, a Christian minister and educator, had a key role in the creation of the residential school system.
“If we’re going to rename things or take down statues, are we taking it down because it offends somebody or are we taking it down because we’re worshiping what the person that the statue represents has done? Because there are a lot of people who go to Ryerson and they don’t even know who Ryerson is,” said Ignacio Onassis, an organizer for an upcoming anti-racism rally in Toronto.
“If it’s unjust for one, it’s unjust for all.”
The Unity Rally to Silence White Supremacy to be held mid-September was initially organized by Onassis and others to counter a Nationalist Party of Canada protest at the University of Toronto. That protest has since been cancelled but the rally is still going on. According to Facebook, nearly 6,000 people are planning to attend.
There have been several rallies in Canada in response to the Aug. 11 clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, when a white nationalist rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters during a “Unite the Right” rally and a woman was killed. The white nationalists were marching to protest the city’s plan to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee, erected in 1924.
“Some of the statues, I would say yes, they have to come down,” Onassis said. “But if they do come down we have to ask ourselves ‘Why?’ and ‘What is the next step?’ It can’t just stop at a statue.”
Donna Gabaccia, a historian at the University of Toronto, suggests controversial statues be relocated to museums where factual context can be applied.
“There’s many ways to create context. You can do it in a museum. You can do it by juxtaposing images. You can remove the statue itself which happens often enough in history and it does not result in the forgetting of what the statue or the monument represents,” Gabaccia said, noting that she lived in Berlin and knows no one will forget about the Berlin Wall.
But Ryerson University historian Ron Stagg argues the statues need more context added, not removal or relocation.
“In the case of Cornwallis, it was a celebration of the founder of Halifax, that’s quite true. But what [the plaque on the statue] didn’t say was he was also a man who wanted to eradicate the Mi’kmaq, to get rid of the local indigenous population. The two things should be there,” Stagg said.
“For some people, the only history they’ll ever see is things on plaques as they’re walking by. If you get rid of the statue you get rid of the whole topic.”
Important Contributions to Canada
Several op-eds have noted the important contributions these historical figures made to the country in the 18th and 19th centuries.
“Cornwallis was, after all, the founder of Halifax. He arrived in Nova Scotia in 1749 with 2,500 settlers, chose the site for a town, and worked to defend and expand his settlement, now the largest city in the Maritimes,” writes Gerry Bowler, senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
“Ryerson had a splendid career in 19th-century Ontario as a Methodist minister, newspaper editor, historian, opponent of oligarchy, founder of Victoria College but, above all, as the architect of the provincial educational system—universal, free, and government-supported—that became a model for every province and territory in Canada.”
Bowler makes the point that, although these men had their flaws, in many cases they were merely reflecting the times.
“By today’s standards, Winston Churchill was a racist and made some very disobliging remarks about Islam, but who will deny that he is worthy of our gratitude for having helped save civilization from Adolf Hitler?” he writes.
“Tommy Douglas, founder of medicare, was once a proponent of eugenics, sterilizing and segregating the mentally handicapped, yet his fellow countrymen voted him the title of The Greatest Canadian.”
Few would argue against removing Nazi statues in Germany or those of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and it’s a comparison often used to justify the removal of statues without threatening history.
“Have you ever been to Germany?” Onassis asked. “There are no Nazi statues because that’s become you’re celebrating the Nazi’s achievements. So what they did is, everywhere there was a Nazi statue, it became a place for what the victims experienced.”
When wounds are fresh it may be more urgent to remove statues, said Stagg, but that’s not the case today in North America, where there has been time for reflection.
“In [Germany’s] case, it was so close and so sensitive an issue, people wanted to get rid of it,” he said.
“In fact there was a backlash against trying to forget about the Nazi period. There was a time when history books tried to gloss over things, and there was a backlash against that. You cannot ignore this or play it down—you’ve got to show people so it won’t happen again.”
Will Koblensky is a freelance reporter based in Toronto with a background in financial, political, and local news.