Tuesday, May 25, 2010

History of Bronze

First you start a blog. Then people start reading it. Then you are expected to have views on things. Merna Forster writes:
Christopher, just wondered what you thought of the recent controversy re the proposed Nellie McClung statue?
I had barely registered the controversy. But I think I am okay with the statue.

As this column argues, if we toppled all the statues of people who have held objectionable and even hateful opinions, we would not have many statues at all. Emily Murphy, prime mover of the Persons Case, had some horrific views about "Orientals" and others, but is part of the Famous Five statue on Parliament Hill -- and rightfully so, I think. A statue ought to be read as an argument for someone's significance, not the proof of it; we should not have to "agree" with every statue we see any more than with every newspaper we read.

I'm reminded of the controversy in the early 1990s over Clara Brett Martin. Martin fought a skillful and successful campaign to become (in 1897) the first woman admitted to the practice of law in Ontario, indeed, anywhere in the British Empire (as we used to say). Martin was more or less rediscovered in the 1980s by Constance Backhouse and other legal historians and became suddenly fashionable. There was an academic lectureship in her honour, and other tributes, and the Ontario government was about to name the new offices of the Attorney General's Department in Toronto after her.

Then the historian Peter Sibenik came across the records of Martin's dealing in nasty stereotypes about Jewish lawyers... and she became more or less an unperson. For years you could see the shadow of her name where the actual letters had been removed from the entrance to the AG's office on Bay Street. (Now the building is named McMurtry-Scott, in honour of two male attorneys-general.) The Martin issue was aired in several articles in The Canadian Journal of Women and the Law (Vol. 5, #2, 1992). The controversy pretty much killed the tributes to her, but one should not have to airbrush Martin's flaws in order to note her achievements (or vice versa). I think it's the same for McClung.

PS. What do you think about this yourself, Merna?  This.

Photo of McClung as wise mother from BC Archives via Google Images.
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