By James Fife
In the course of putting down these ruminations about our cumulative move to Canada, I’ve spotted a number of points that highlight how life in Home South is the same or different from life in Home North. These have ranged over the broad territory that stretches from the sublime to the ridiculous. You are free to label any past topics as one or the other as you wish; personally, I would tend to put topics like people’s attitudes, language, and food in the first category—treatment of shared bicycles, politics, and the like fill up the second of these to a fair extent. But I’m at a loss how to classify a recent, very unexpected intersection where my respective experiences with the United States and Canada meet. Perhaps it’s a circumstance that bridges the divide between the two categories, being a bit of both.
I’m talking about statues. Or, more precisely, the removal of them.
This whole movement to move the statues started way down South. From what I saw reported, a long-simmering discontent with thousands (literally) of monuments to the Confederacy scattered across the southern U.S. states hit a boiling point after the shooting of black church-goers in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015. It was discovered the shooter had a fixation on Confederate rebels and their role in upholding white supremacy. The revulsion at the shooting and the motives behind it led to a spontaneous burst of resolve to remove public installations that glorified those historical motives. The suddenness of the move in Charleston and other southern cities in displacing the statues aroused opposition of various degrees of vehemence and logic.
The most common, more measured arguments against removal claimed that displacing the statues was an attempt to “erase history”. Some argued that the better step would be to leave the statues, but provide opposing, contextual explanations that would make the monuments less one-sided in their message. Others had rather fewer reasonable reasons for supporting public images of rebel generals. Still, despite the furor, the trend spread widely across the country. The controversy hit even San Diego, in California, which removed its one, tiny plaque commemorating the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. Until it was taken away, I never knew it existed.
From the heat raised over the removal efforts, one would think that the proposals were to adopt the ISIS policy of dynamiting millennia-old Persian and Assyrian antiquities. But the fact is, the vast majority of the monuments subject to debate are barely 100 years old. That’s because they were erected at the height of the Jim Crow, segregationist era in the U.S., in the 1910s and 1920s. Before then, the stigma associated with the ideology that precipitated the Civil War was too great to celebrate openly. It was only when enough time had washed over the wounds that it was thinkable to glorify the South again, even as the segregationist regimes retained full control. It was the era of Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind and (not coincidentally) the high tide of the Ku Klux Klan, when those monuments were raised.
Given all that, I found it hard to accept the pleas to leave the statues up, knowing their origin and original intent, whatever some claimed they might mean and represent today. That’s because they also—clearly—mean something less acceptable to a number of people. The displays and sentiments expressed by statue-supporters at the Charlottesville, Virginia white-right rally show unmistakably what the statue of General Lee (the object of the protest) means to them in the here and now. That convinces me that, whatever minor educational value comes from a public display of monuments to the slave-owner side of the war, the danger of them becoming a focal point for perpetuating racism today outweighs it. As a society, we can choose not to honour a discredited, cast-off viewpoint. That is not erasing history, but a recognition that it constantly marches on.
So, it was intriguing to me to see a parallel controversy arise surrounding the Sir John A. Macdonald statue in front of Victoria City Hall. I’ve seen the statue, of course, and I know who it represents, but my knowledge of Canadian history did not extend to his association with residential schools and other acts to suppress the indigenous nations. From that standpoint, being one of the few people who are interested enough to read through plaques attached to historical markers, I might have learned something had the statue remained, but supplemented by a more balanced explanation of who and what this person was. Still, I knew enough to realize it was strange that Victoria had any statue at all, given John A.’s association with the city was to parachute in as MP under the odd, Canadian practice of electing people to seats who have no prior connection to the riding. Below the 49th parallel, we call such people carpetbaggers. So, it did not strike me as so shocking that his statue got spirited away as quickly and as unheralded as his political arrival in Victoria.
But I know that the removal has sparked a controversy here as well. Fortunately, not as virulent or as violent as in the U.S. But there were similar arguments raised that I had heard before, and it appeared that the protests drew out some elements whose motivations likewise served to prove the point of those who thought the statue raises unacceptable associations.
I can very well understand the feelings of African Americans who, confronted publicly with a glorification of the effort to keep their ancestors locked in slavery, would feel offended and excluded. Likewise, I credit the protestations that seeing Macdonald glare at them every time they approach City Hall makes Indigenous people cringe. Like a statue of a Confederate soldier, the indirect (often ignored) educational function of the monument does not in good conscience outweigh the subtext of denigration of a whole class of us. While one may still question the way the decision was made and executed, the fact is, it is a done deal, whether the substantive value of the removal is still in doubt. Like the tributes to Stonewall Jackson, it was here for one historical interlude, but now is gone. The statues can be usefully displayed in the contextualizing setting that some urge; but we need not approve a public sanctioning of the negative pall they cast on an entire group of our citizens.
That is not the Canadian way. Nor is it the American way.