This short post is in response to a series of opinion pieces in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, all relating to the question of erecting statues to 22 Prime Ministers in Waterloo Region.
How should we remember our past?
Some in Waterloo region seem to think the best way is through erecting a statue to every Canadian Prime Minister. All 22 of them. 79% of those surveyed in the region disagreed, and the statues were not erected in the city’s chief public space, Victoria Park. Thankfully, Wilfrid Laurier University, fresh off of 22 job cuts and the threat of more, agreed to house these eye sores far away from the sight of the actual public.
Yes, it is a university, but it is a terrible place to put these statues. The campus is small and not inviting to the general public; the only people who would see these statues would be students, who would gain far more from having our 22 employees returned to us.
And why the heck do we need statues in the first place? Supporters, such as Peter Shawn Taylor, believe that these statues will spark conversations about Canada’s past, and help us remember the figures behind such iconic moments as the beginning of the residential school system. That is absolute fallacy. Statues are icons, not documents – icons are venerated, documents are studied, analyzed, and debated. This is why the Catholic faithful for over a thousand years prayed to the image of a cross, rather than read the actual words of their messiah. Icons, such as these statues, promote deference to authority. They set the Prime Ministers above other Canadians, and send the message that they deserve to be cast in bronze for time immemorial, no matter their actual accomplishments, failures, or fallacies. (Let us recall for a moment that Mr. Harper would also be cast in bronze, a somewhat horrifying thought). These Ministers were real humans, with real successes and real failures.
These figures surely represent Canada’s past, but they simplify it. They turn Sir John A. MacDonald into either a genocidal racist or a nation-building hero, depending on the viewer’s perspective. The statues may be in three dimensions, but they portray each figure in a very two dimensional way. Making icons of these men (and woman) removes their real dynamic personalities, individual flaws and personal successes. One writer, in defending the reputation of “dead old white guys” cites Winston Churchill, a classic example of a very controversial figure in his time that has subsequently been turned into an empty icon; yes, his leadership helped the British “stare down the Nazi’s”, but he also advocated war with the Soviet Union and was only able to attain such a high government position because of his aristocratic birth. These icons will not spark real conversations, not the sorts that happen in the classroom at least. There is a time and place to learn about Canada’s history. At best, the conversations taking place on the university grounds about these statues will be how to take the best “selfies” with them.
If we are to have statues, are Prime Ministers even the best way to discuss Canada’s rich history? Mike Carrol rightfully points out that “a focus on the actions of (white, male) political leaders is hardly the best way to confront issues relating gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and inequality that must inevitably be part of the ‘difficult conversations’ about our past, and about our multicultural present”, to which Taylor responds with “ all these things may be useful in achieving a fuller understanding of history, but surely matters of leadership and national purpose are of equal or greater importance than narrow-minded identity politics.”
Taylor’s misunderstanding of not only the past, but the present, in insinuating that individual identity comes second to “leadership and national purpose” is made bare in this statement. Individuals are little more than the identity they construct for themselves, based on their gender, sexuality, race, religion, nationality, and ethnicity. Our exalted leaders would have had very little success in nation building if the first Canadians did not already share some sense of a uniform identity.
Taylor’s understanding of history takes the humans out of history, and replaces real people with iconic “leaders”, that through sheer will and perhaps divine intervention can forge a Canadian nation out of nothing, never mind the actual wishes and desires of individual Canadians. Believe it or not, the Canada we see today was not created by these Prime Ministers: it was created by average Canadians.
As citizens, we should all seriously engage in Canada’s history, but unseemly bronze likenesses in a secluded campus are not the way forward. Statues are not a good way to seriously engage with the past, and if they are to be erected let it be in Victoria Park, in the shadow of the hulking monument to Queen Victoria, where we can recognize them for what they are: empty icons.
If you liked what you just read, check out our other opinion pieces, like this one on nationalism and identity. And, please, feel free to comment, share, like or follow!