While significant media attention and public furor has focused recently upon various, seemingly unfashionable American public monuments, the trend is more broadly based, and has its own political parallels in Canada.
Canadians needn’t go back as far as 1963, when the Front de liberation du Quebec (FLQ) felt politically motivated to decapitate Queen Victoria’s statue, or question the suitability of General Wolfe’s column — by toppling it — in Quebec City.
Comparable political passions have asserted themselves far more recently than these, and are now part of a growing collection of similar theme.
In early 2016, pressure from activists citing colonialist insensitivity to indigenous peoples and a predominant “hetero-male historical narrative”, managed to keep Wilfrid Laurier University from permanently placing a statue of Prime Minister John A. MacDonald on its campus to commemorate Canada’s 150th birthday.
In July of 2017, the Ryerson University student union expressed a desire to remove the statue of former Methodist circuit preacher and Ontario Education Superintendent, Egerton Ryerson, from campus, because he had been among the first to study and make recommendations regarding native residential schools.
Langevin Bridge in Calgary, earlier this year, appears to have been renamed for approximately the same reason.
This very month, a bid to remove a Montreal plaque dedicated to the memory of former President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, was also successful. The plaque was on private storefront owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company, but marked the spot of a property in which Davis had once lived in the aftermath of the American Civil War.
Perhaps predictably, this month has also witnessed renewed political pressure to remove a Halifax monument dedicated to Nova Scotia governor and founder of the city, Edward Cornwallis, who, in 1749, put out an infamous bounty on Mi’kmaq native scalps.
Yet, if we care to notice, real “infamy” doesn’t seem to be a common thread in these varied historical cases. Cornwallis was, indeed, a battle-hardened soldier, but Ryerson was more like an administrative theorist.
The uncomfortable political truth is that what unites all these cases is, quite arguably, the contemporary self-righteousness of the complainants.
The ironies are considerable. If moral perfection were the sole criterion by which public statues are dedicated, then only Jesus Christ would likely qualify for one. All media spin notwithstanding, today’s historical revisionism, revealingly, tends to be the ideological hobby-horse of the politically puritanical.
Today’s progressivist “puritans” may not be interested in putting scarlet letters on adulterers — that might be too self-incriminating in our context — but they are definitely interested in pointing out, painting over, or even obliterating the public personalities of their particular disfavour.
Curiously, Jesus was, himself, quite familiar with the issue of self-righteousness and public monuments. Indeed, he commented critically upon the “virtue-signalling” of his day when he noticed the Pharisees’ willingness to adorn monuments in the belief that, had they lived in the days of the martyred prophets to whom the monuments were dedicated, they would not have helped kill them.
Today’s proud delusion is only slightly different. We may not naively believe that had we lived in the days of the colonialists we would have been less “colonial”. Instead, we seemingly believe that, since progress has cleansed us of all pretensions of colonialism, it is now our bounden duty to remove such vestigial historical darkness from our glorious present. However, as one American professor I know recently asked, what’s the difference between melting a statue and burning a book?
Hidden from all our contemporary campus fervor is the reality that, for all our progressive public education (ironically, thanks to people like Ryerson), we have not escaped from becoming shameless moralizers.
In the name of “truth and reconciliation”, we publicly lament yesterday’s racist imperialism in Canada, even while our government of 2017 pledges $650 million to project, as foreign policy, its sexual politics on nations in Africa that, among other things, do not want our abortion “rights.”
While the old, nasty imperialism planted flags with crowns and crosses, the new is superior for making them rainbow-coloured? By all appearances, we are attempting to compel African nations to accept that our sexual culture is more empowering, “research-based”, and enlightened than theirs. The more things change…
Tellingly, there was a time when we might have just confessed our cultural sins and asked for God’s forgiveness. These days, however, Divine forgiveness is hardly necessary when, for the sake of the pogrom of progress, we can still project the new “superior” values with soft power, all while publicly obliterating our own colonial indiscretions.
Today, we grow increasingly comfortable with Orwellian revisionism as official public policy. We’d rather erase our collective sins than be reminded to confess them. Behold the new sanctimony!
Yet, to paraphrase Jesus, “Let those who are without sin, recast the first stone.”