This is the first instalment in a two-part series looking at the role of public monuments in Canada. Read Part 2 here.
The destruction of Sir John A. Macdonald’s statue in Montreal last weekend has prompted a long-overdue national debate in Canada over which monuments should stay up and which honour figures whose past crimes are so heinous, it’s time for them to disappear.
It’s a relatively new debate for us, but our American friends have been embroiled in it for years. Several things make this issue tremendously complex, not the least of which is the fact that the reputations of the honorees have changed along with societal mores.
Here’s a great example. In 1876, an independent official commission created the Emancipation Memorial in Washington, D.C. The artist, Thomas Ball, depicted Abraham Lincoln standing with his left arm outstretched, while a newly freed slave, wearing only a loin cloth, crouches on one knee before him.
Princeton University historian and scholar Allen Guelzo says the project was overseen by the founding dean of the law school at Howard University, a private, federally chartered, historically Black post-secondary institution.
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The monument’s unveiling ceremony was attended by 100,000 Black Americans. The keynote speaker at the event was Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became a leader in the abolitionist movement and was one of the greatest orators of his or any other time.
“This was a truly great African-American moment,” Guelzo said recently at a webinar on monuments organized by former Salomon Brothers investor Larry Bernstein.
However, 144 years later, those details haven’t changed but the context surely has. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Democratic congresswoman from Washington, D.C., began mounting demonstrations last June and demanding that the monument be taken down. She insisted that, rather than celebrating Black emancipation, the memorial portrays Black people in a humiliating and subservient way.
Guelzo’s take on all this: “They’ve attached a new interpretation to this monument and, in doing so, have made a dreadful historic mistake. They’ve discovered an offence where none exists. Now the monument is fenced in so people don’t deface it.”
No serious historian would say that, once a monument is up, it should be up forever, no questions asked. History is a living thing, and we’re constantly reinterpreting it.
“Heroes become villains,” says University of Texas Law School scholar Sandford Levinson, who wrote the 1998 book Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies. “Or we discover new things about heroes that makes them villains.”
So how do we figure out who merits honouring and whom we should stop honouring with a public monument officially sanctioned by some governmental authority?
This is the very crossroads at which Canadians now find themselves — and it seems like a great time to figure out some criteria around which we can build a consensus.
Today, Canada’s first prime minister is in the crosshairs on this issue. But, tomorrow, it could be a controversial monument in Oakville, less than an hour west of Toronto. The stone cenotaph in the St. Volodymyr Ukrainian Cemetery honours the 14th SS Division of Ukrainian soldiers, who pledged their loyalty to Adolph Hitler during World War II and were part of the Nazis’ Waffen SS.
This monument garnered some attention earlier this summer, when persons unknown vandalized it with graffiti. Making the situation even stranger was the Halton Regional Police’s stated intention to investigate the matter as a “hate crime.” The implication was that even Nazis are entitled to be free from vandalism.
The incident raised all sorts of uncomfortable questions about the Ukrainian nationalists who sided with Germany during the war to get out from under the yoke of the Soviet Union, versus those who perhaps too enthusiastically collaborated with Hitler’s evil.
This 14th SS Division is alleged to have murdered hundreds of Polish villagers in 1944, and Jewish men, women, and children on other occasions. And, yet, there is a monument marking their loyal service to Ukraine (and to Hitler?) in Oakville.
If we’re mad at Macdonald’s sins of 150-plus years ago, how can we not be equally outraged by this monument, which was erected in 1988 and celebrates “those who died for the freedom of Ukraine”?
How should we decide such matters, which are fraught with ethnic, nationalist, and social-justice politics?
We’ll pick up that story in our next column.