Legacies, good and bad, of historical figures, can help us understand the present day

Left: A statue of John A. Macdonald in Charlottetown (Shane Ross/CBC) Right: A statue of Gandhi in London, England. (Chris Dorney/Shutterstock)

The issue of statues, street names and other memorials to prominent historical figures is getting a lot of attention again, not just in Canada but all over the world. As part of the protests against the violence Black and Indigenous people often face, statues of historical figures ranging from John A. Macdonald to Winston Churchill have been vandalized. The statues of prominent Confederate leaders in the United States have been torn down, as have the statues of slave traders in the United Kingdom. In Toronto, there’s a movement to rename Dundas Street, which is named for Henry Dundas, a British politician who delayed the abolition of slavery in the British Empire.

The debate seems pretty cut and dried, doesn’t it? Why should these figures have memorials dedicated to them when they’re guilty of racism and oppression?

The problem is that not all of these figures have the same kinds of legacies.

Macdonald implemented the head tax against Asian immigrants and much of the residential school system. He also supported bilingualism, tried to extend the vote to women and Indigenous men, and played a critical role in preventing Canada from becoming part of the United States. If not for Macdonald, Donald Trump might be our President right now.

Macdonald’s fellow Father of Confederation George Brown was an anti-Catholic and anti-Francophone bigot. He was also a staunch abolitionist and used his newspaper to crusade against slavery in the United States. Locally, Vital Grandin strongly supported residential schools. He was also instrumental in developing Francophone Alberta and bilingualism here, not to mention many of the communities in central Alberta.

In the United States, some activists have justified removing the Confederate statues by pointing out that the men they honour were traitors to the United States. But what about men like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, who were slave owners but were also critical to founding the United States and making important contributions to liberal theory? Should they be considered on the same level as the Confederate leaders?

In short, how do we consider all these historical figures’ legacies, both the positive and negative? What weight do we put to each one? If we remove memorials to them, do we risk forgetting the positive parts of their legacies?

This issue isn’t just limited to white historical figures. Mahatma Gandhi is widely hailed for his opposition to the British Empire’s rule over India and his contribution to India’s independence … but a university in the African country of Ghana recently took down a statue commemorating Gandhi because of his racist views on black Africans. Which parts of Gandhi’s legacy should be remembered?

As I wrote three years ago, there’s both a lot to commend and a lot to lament about Canadian history. It’s important to consider those things as a whole, and the same goes for the legacies of many historical figures.

Canada Day is an ideal time to consider how understanding those legacies can help us understand the present day.

Originally published at https://www.stalberttoday.ca on July 1, 2020

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