Statues, history and commemorative intent

Recently in Canada and Scotland, there has been renewed debates about the presence of statues and plaques commemorating figures of history.  The statue of Cornwallis in Halifax, Macdonald in Victoria, Duncan Campbell Scott’s memorial plaque in Ottawa, and the Henry Dundas statue in Edinburgh, Scotland. The debate is not whether the person being commemorated is historically important.  The debate is about whether the historical importance of the figure whitewashes the negative.

Dundas was a powerful political leader in Scotland, and also campaigned to end slavery in Britain “gradually”, which now can be viewed as extending slavery longer than it might have been necessary. It seems that he also benefited financially for prolonging slavery.

Duncan Campbell Scott was known as a famous Canadian poet, and also started the Department of Indian Affairs’ generations-long campaign to “civilize” Indians through the use of forced residential schools.  Scott knew Indigenous children were dying in these schools, and infamously said this “does not justify a change in the policy of this Department which is geared towards a final solution of our Indian problem” (Department of Indian Affairs Superintendent D.C. Scott to B.C. Indian Agent-General Major D. McKay, DIA Archives, RG 1-Series 12 April 1910).

Macdonald was Canada’s first prime minister, and also was an active supporter of the American confederates and slavery.  Macdonald also supported Scott’s residential school policy.

And Cornwallis.   His legacy in the British military is spotty at best.  Accused of poor leadership and massacre, he was given the post of the first governor of Nova Scotia perhaps to get him out of the country. And this is where he implemented the scalping bounty on Mi’kmaq.  Seriously, how can this glaring horrible fact be ignored?

Some have argued that no human is perfect, but the good of these historical figures outweighs the bad.  This argument is beyond tone-deaf, this is the basis of whitewashing.  Let’s try this out on the legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott, for example….”his poetry far outweighs the experience of over a hundred thousand children who suffered abuse thanks to his residential schools policy”….nope, doesn’t pass the smell test.  This argument demands that the history and experience of Indigenous peoples continues to be ignored, as if their lived experience is not valued in this country.  Please don’t say that this is truly the intent, the commemorative intent.

The good news is that the Scott memorial plaque has been revised to ensure a balanced and full history.

Some have argued that taking down statues is like erasing history. It’s a simplistic argument and sounds defensive, “don’t touch my history I like it like this”.  The field and research of history should not bow to whitewashing, sharing only the stuff that makes us feel good and ignoring the lived experience of others who suffered (cue the name Beyak here).  Because tweaking the facts of history, erasing parts of history to look good, to maintain prestige and power – this is also the definition of propaganda.  Take a deep breath, Canada, and let’s talk about some statues being reflective of a time and values that we really don’t want to maintain.

Regarding the discussion in Edinburgh about the Dundas statue, Joel McKim is a professor at Birkbeck University, he said “Because this is public space for everyone, and it needs to reflect the sentiments, the political views, the values of the community in which it exists. And those change over time. And as a result, monuments also have to change.”

As a country we get to choose what we commemorate, our commemorative intent.  In our era of reconciliation, we will review how the history of Canada has been told, and as we learn more, the history will be told with more depth and balance, more reflective of different perspectives.  In this time we will look at the things built to commemorate figures of history.  I hope we will value people’s experiences and stories including Indigenous peoples, more than the statues and things.  If we don’t get this right, we might as well admit failure on the reconciliation front.

Reconciliation is more than just a nice word.  It’s action.  It’s learning more to do better, especially in history and how we tell our collective stories as a country.


How we’re teaching Indigenous history to our kids, by Selena Mills on CBC Parents

The Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott, by the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada

Sir John A. Macdonald: 5 frightening facts about our first prime minister, by Huffington Post

The truth about Cornwallis, by the Halifax Magazine

Henry Dundas: lofty hero or lowlife crook, by the History Company