Canada’s monuments, Part 2: Who decides what statues should come down?

Which public monuments we erect or remove should be a matter of reasoned debate — so let’s try to set out some terms
By Steve Paikin - Published on Sep 08, 2020
A statue of Egerton Ryerson, covered in paint, on the campus of Ryerson University in downtown Toronto. (Carlos Osorio/CP)

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This is the final instalment in a two-part series looking at the role of public monuments in Canada. Read Part 1 here.

Now that we’re in the midst of a national reckoning on issues related to Indigenous and Black social justice, the time seems right to have a debate on which monuments have stood the test of time and which need to come down.

“Some preservationists believe that, when a statue is up, it should be up forever,” said Sandford Levinson, a scholar at the University of Texas Law School, in a recent webinar on this issue. Levinson disagrees with that view: “This problem is never going away, and it’s becoming more obvious around the world.”

The problem is also not new. In 1956, Hungarians attempted an uprising against Soviet repression and, at one point, decapitated a statue of Joseph Stalin. It certainly was vandalism by any definition, but, in the West, it was seen as a completely understandable form of protest against a foreign occupying power.

More recently, in 2003, American troops watched as Iraqis lassoed and pulled down a statue of Saddam Hussein. Again, there was no committee discussion around this act. But it was also widely seen as an appropriate thing to do, given the way Hussein had terrorized much of his population for decades.

Last weekend, Canada joined the fray, with vandals destroying a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald in Montreal. Unlike the two previous examples, there is no societal consensus that Macdonald’s beheading was appropriate — in fact, quite the contrary. Many believe that “the mob” shouldn’t get to decide whether to keep a statue up and that agreed-upon criteria should be established and followed.

At the webinar, Princeton University historian Allen Guelzo pointed out there’s a state park in California with a monument honouring members of the so-called Donner Party, who resorted to cannibalism after having been trapped in a winter storm in 1846. No one supports cannibalism, Guelzo said, but, over time, “the power of that controversy has become a historical footnote. The Donner Party has been defanged. No one cares anymore.” Therefore, there are no calls to have the memorial taken down.

But lots of people seem to care whether the sins of Canada’s first prime minister outweigh the good he did in creating one of the world’s most successful countries — and the coast-to-coast railway that serves it. And that’s just Canada. In the U.S., the debate rages on as to whether to allow monuments to the Confederacy to remain, despite the fact that most of them were erected between 1890 and 1915 to promote the “Lost Cause” of the South and the disappearance of a way of life. Many historians now say this was an attempt to glorify a conflict that was really about slavery and white supremacy — which are, in fact, what the South fought for.

Guelzo says what we need is a “decision tree” with several branches, offering various criteria. If a monument passes the test, it should remain in place. If not, it can be removed from its privileged public place and either moved to a museum or abandoned altogether.

Here’s Guelzo’s decision tree:

  1. Does the statue commemorate an individual who committed crimes against a living person that could be punishable in court? If yes, the statue should be removed.
  2. Did the individual order the commission of capital crimes — for example, slavery, genocide, or terrorism — or incur the responsibility for them? If yes, again, their statue comes down.
  3. Is the individual’s statue at a specific location for an important reason? Was he born there? Did something momentous happen there? If yes, one could argue that the monument should remain in place as a marker for a historical event, rather than as something that honours the individual. If not, it’s another argument to remove it.
  4. Is the statue used as an active venue for promoting capital crimes, such as slavery, genocide, or terrorism? If yes, take it down.
  5. And did the individual undertake acts to mitigate the historical harms he might have done? If so, itemize those acts on an accompanying plaque to explain why the statue remains. If not, down it comes.

“This process won’t yield any easy answers,” Guelzo admitted. “But it begins a reasonable process instead of leaving things to the vagaries of impulse.”

For example, two of America’s most revered historical figures — George Washington and Thomas Jefferson — owned slaves. But an argument could be made that their monuments should remain because their political contributions outweighed the evil they were party to. Many Canadians would make the same argument about Macdonald. Yes, his treatment of Indigenous people would be characterized today as criminal. But he did create Canada, champion francophone and Catholic rights, and undertake the first attempts to give women the right to vote.

James T. Campbell, a historian specializing in American history at Stanford University, said, “I do worry about where this process ends. If we only honour paragons with monuments, frankly, we’re not going to have very many statues.”

Campbell also fears that the drive to take down more and more statues is akin to “patting ourselves on the back because of our superior morality. And what’s next after monuments are toppled?”

And Levinson said he suspects that “there’s no reason we’d agree on the conclusions, even if we agreed on the criteria” for taking down monuments. Moreover, he added, he’s “not optimistic about the decision-making process.” Would clear-headed academics or experts be tasked with the job of listing which statues need to go — or politicians, “putting their fingers in the air and figuring out what will sell?”

But at least there would be a process. At the moment, if last weekend in Montreal is any indication, we’re all subject to the whims of whatever a small group of vandals decides. Surely, in our democracy, we can do better than that.

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