Friday, May 03, 2024

History of ... I can't even

The recently founded Canadian Institute for Historical Education wants us to pay $125 a seat at the Badminton and Racquet Club in Toronto to hear its experts tell us why we should celebrate Canadian heroes like Henry Dundas, a British cabinet minister who never came within a thousand kilometres of Canada in his life.

Our colloquium a year ago on Henry Dundas was powerful and I think really caused the City of Toronto to reverse its decision on renaming Dundas Street. And our series on Macdonald in the fall brought together some of Canada’s leading historians who, each in their own way, showed that our colourful first prime minister was instrumental, indeed essential, in building the country we have today. [i.e., -- trigger alert -- "Macdonald Saved more Indigenous Lives than any other Prime Minister"]

Now we will turn our attention to Egerton Ryerson, as well as looking again at Macdonald’s role in the crisis faced by Canada’s Indigenous Peoples in the 1880s.

Recently I've been writing a piece on the historic sites work of Parks Canada. I'm more and more struck by the wisdom of the mantra "commemoration not celebration" that gradually came to direct its efforts at sites across Canada. And I'm ever more profoundly out of sympathy with the determination that Historical Education means insisting that history is celebrating winners and dismissing all others.

There is, indeed, a case for saying that Henry Dundas's opinions on slavery were more ambiguous than has been claimed by those who would change the name of Dundas Street. And that Egerton Ryerson was not in fact the father of residential schools.  And, yes, that John A. Macdonald was instrumental, even essential.

But to leap from that to insist that any name-changing, any review of our civic iconographies, is the killing and cancelling of the past -- I find that hard to grasp. There is something else at work here.

We used to have an iconic building in Toronto, rich in associations for millions of people, part of our history. And then the Leafs moved from Maple Leaf Gardens, and their new home became the "Air Canada Centre." And then was rebranded "the Scotiabank Arena" (not to be mistaken for the Scotiabank Theatre nearby, or the Scotiabank bank tower between them). We used to have the iconic Skydome, named by a public competition that involved thousands of votes to commemorate the world's first retractable-roof stadium. Then somebody made it merely one of a number of Rogers Centres across Canada, no doubt to be abruptly renamed at the next corporate reshuffle. Who will kill the late Ted Rogers?

When will the Canadian Institute protest these killings of history?

Names change as culture changes. Mr Dundas has his street (and town, and even an inlet in Nunavut) because he was one of the patrons of a British colonial official eager to put a British imprint on a new colonial creation in the 1790s. He's had a good run. It's not his Toronto anymore, and today we have different traditions to imprint on our cities. Just as Iqaliut surely seems more appropriate than "Frobisher Bay," (as it was called for about 45 years), and just as Boulevard Rene-Levesque is more natural to modern Montreal than Dorchester Street could be, why cannot we choose names for our streets and institutions that reflect modern Toronto and modern Canada? 

Cost you $125 to be told why we can't, I guess.     


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