By Trevor Busch
When any nation’s complex history is placed under the microscope of modern moral judgement, controversy is sure to be the inevitable result.
Over the weekend in Vancouver, protesters from both sides of a sticky, made-in-Canada historical conundrum confronted each other on the steps of city hall as a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald was removed as part of a reconciliation process initiated between First Nations groups and city council.
The more tactless among them flung racist and politically-charged epithets and slogans at each other while stoic police looked on from beyond a tight cordon, leaving question as to how much reconciliation the city’s decision was actually engendering among a divided and inflamed populace.
In 2018, historical revisionism is becoming a popular and politically-correct approach to confronting the less palatable aspects of our recent past. And while seemingly becoming the cause célèbre of many of our political masters all across the continent — disparaging the acts and personages of history has recent and rising political capital — it ignores the fact that once you make effort to rub out the past to save the future, you’re already putting that future in peril if the lessons that can be learned are being forcibly forgotten.
Those who study history will tell you that while many of the facts are indisputable, our interpretation of them is a fluid and evolving beast, wrestled with on both sides by the prevailing interpretation and those who seek to see events with new eyes less tempered by our own prejudices. Revisionism is hardly a dirty word, and the fact that the study of the past is a place for lively debate rather than closed-minded obstinacy is a positive development.
But when revisionism begins to target the physical reminders of our own history for total erasure — which is what seems to be the outcome in the case of our first prime minister’s bronze likeness in Vancouver — we need to begin asking ourselves if eliminating this is really the approach we should be taking. How, for instance, are we expected to impart the lessons of our history to future generations if we’ve obsessively busied ourselves with its eradication?
In many ways, the past simply exists — facts, dates, wars, treaties, births, deaths, marriages — the who, what, where, when, and how. Interpretation, on the other hand, along with motivations, is what becomes the all-important why. If we begin to meddle with these pillars of the past, hitting the delete button as we see fit to censor and filter out the darker history our superiority of the present deems unfit, then history itself begins to unravel. It becomes incoherent, disjointed, like a house of cards from which the key foundations have been tugged. What we would be left with is a watered-down mish-mash of politically-correct, government-vetted facts.
The eventual legacy of such a movement would be much darker. In his classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, author George Orwell explored a totalitarian society where control of the past — namely, altering it to fit the dictates of the present — is a key aspect of power and oppression. If the past could be altered so radically and efficiently as to eliminate all the mistakes of a present regime, Orwell argues that a dictatorship could conceivably rule forever. How does one criticize a regime in which the ruling party is always proven to have been right? Orwell’s fictional Oceania is perhaps an extreme example, but it is illustrative of just what the slippery slope could have in store for us if we choose to dismiss preserving the integrity of the past as fundamentally unimportant.
No one today would suggest that John A. Macdonald was perfect. But name me a historical figure that was — even one — and I’d call anyone a liar. A person’s character and attitudes are always the product of the times in which they lived, and while it is not unjust to retrospectively judge them for their deeds and actions, it must always be weighed against historical context if we are to achieve a true picture of just how diabolical an individual might have been. If the attitudes and prejudices they harboured were the prevailing consensus of their society at the time, how personally culpable are they? And how harshly should we judge their actions in retrospect?
Tough questions no doubt. And while Macdonald is now being routinely denigrated for his role as one of the architects of the residential school system, as well as promoting assimilationist policies under the Indian Act, even refusing to supply food to starving First Nations on the Prairies — he was also Canada’s first prime minister, was a leading figure in the discussions and conferences which resulted in the British North America Act and the birth of Canada as a nation in 1867, and was instrumental in the forging of the national railroad from coast to coast which tied together Canada as never before.
Hard counterpoints to reconcile. But should they not be open to a broader historical discussion and re-evaluation, rather than a blanket condemnation which is what seems to have prevailed with Vancouver city council? The actions of the past are often immutable, but not indisputable. We can come to consensus about the modern reputations of historical figures without having to obliterate them from public view. Once we start down that garden path, they will always be tinged with a negativity that will overshadow whatever good deeds they might have been responsible for.
And are Macdonald’s questionable actions really any worse than those of successive American presidents during the mid-to-late 19th century, who during the same time period unflinchingly pursued policies of eradication and annihilation towards their own First Nations peoples? How much condemnation do we hear reverberating from the halls of power in Washington about these individuals? And take George Washington himself, America’s revolutionary war hero and first president. Washington was certainly no saint and was an enthusiastic slave owner most of his life. Can you imagine the kind of reaction there would be among the American public if her present leaders embarked upon a policy of de-Washingtonization to rectify past ills, real or imagined? Safe to say the bells for re-election wouldn’t be resounding.
Instead, Washington is still ranked among the top three Presidents in history, honoured by countless monuments, public works, place names, stamps, and currency.
You can’t simply sweep history under the rug, it exists whether we like it or not. If we wish to truly learn from it, the ugly and the dark must be dredged up from the basement of time and exposed to the brightest light we can muster. That is fundamentally why we study history, so we can learn lessons about who and what we are, as well as the darkness and the brutality and the inhumanity that is part of the history of any modern society. Are we doing future generations a favour by suggesting that there are some truths too uncomfortable to confront?
Without darkness, there would be no light, and without error no search for the truth.