Wednesday, July 05, 2017

History of statuary

Last week's erasure of Hector Langevin's name from a prominent building in Ottawa is followed this week by reports on the campaign to rename Ryerson University in Toronto and remove Ryerson's statue from the campus because of his support for indigenous residential schools in the nineteenth century.

So I was struck by the opinion of the American historian Annette Gordon-Reed that, while the removal of statues of some Confederate war heroes is justified and necessary, statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both slave owners, should never be removed in the United States.
Gordon-Reed, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her book on the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, said it was not hard to draw a bright line separating Jefferson’s generation of Virginians from the ones who tried to secede.
“We can distinguish between people who wanted to build the United States of America and people who wanted to destroy it,” she said. “It’s possible to recognize people’s contributions at the same time as recognizing their flaws.” ...
(I'm copying Gordon-Reed's view from History News Network, which is drawing on The Atlantic magazine.)

I would not presume to predict Gordon-Reed's opinion on the Langevin and Ryerson situations, but she suggests a useful principle. Neither Langevin nor Ryerson has been honoured specifically for their anti-indigenous views in the way the confederate generals were honoured for their fight to preserve the slave power and white supremacy. Both men are specifically 'people who wanted to build' Canada, and did honourable work in that cause.

The case of Halifax's statue of Edward Cornwallis, honoured as a founder of Halifax but now perhaps principally associated with the British military campaigns against the Mi'kmaq and (after his departure) against Acadians... now that seems more complicated.

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