Renaming Langevin Block isn’t rewriting history – it’s unearthing it: Tabatha Southey

I tend to be more in the third camp that maintaining historic names and monuments may be better than erasing them as we can’t (nor should we) erase history (with appropriate interpretative plaques). But I understand the views of the Indigenous MPs and related factors that led the government to make the name change:

The building, constructed in 1889, was named after Hector-Louis Langevin. Mr. Langevin, a member of Sir John A. Macdonald’s cabinet and one of the Fathers of Confederation, was also one of the fathers of the Canadian residential school system, which he saw as the best way of ensuring that Indigenous children didn’t “remain savages.”

Of the resulting residential school system, I can only say this: If you haven’t yet, read the report, especially if you’re in a panic about us misremembering our past. Residential schools are part of Canada’s history, and in removing Mr. Langevin’s name from a building – one from which we are partly governed, no less – at a time when Canada must attempt reconciliation, we’re not burying our past. We’re unearthing it.

There has been an incredible level of hand-wringing about the name change, as there is about many name changes these days, and there seem to be three schools of lack-of-thought around monuments, statues, tributes, and the renaming and removing thereof.

The first is that change is simply impossible, or at least immoral. “Don’t trust that lying song, it’s still Constantinople,” this argument goes. “Or are you denying that Constantine the Great ever existed?”

The second argument is that we mustn’t apply modern standards to old heroes, and that everyone objecting to the perpetual celebration of people who tormented or enslaved their ancestors or their living relatives, like their auntie over there knitting them a scarf, is being far too sensitive.

Generally, this “don’t be such a snowflake” argument somehow manages to come around to not wanting to hurt the ghostly feelings of whatever dead hero’s statue or honorifically-named school is under discussion. Often, there’s a codicil that the once-celebrated figure meant well, or at least only meant as badly as everyone else did at the time, so don’t be such a meanie, snowflake.

The third line of defence takes one look at Defence Number Two, standing there boasting, “Look how bizarre I am, I am a complete freak of logic,” and simply says, “Hold my rhetorical beer.”

“Yes,” says Defence Number Three, “the old dead person in question was in fact horrible, you’re right. He was not at all the sort of person who deserves a great big statue or a major street named after him, and clearly the only the way to ensure future generations remember how horrible he was is to keep a lot of statues of him around and name an assortment of streets, schools, bridges and other miscellaneous public property after him. Not that I like the guy or admire his politics or anything, but lest we forget and all …”

Close observers may note that Defence Number Three and its devotees generally draw a line at which specific historical figures we must keep around under the guise of not repeating them.

…Some have pointed out that, given the issues still to be resolved, if we are to achieve reconciliation with Indigenous people, renaming a building is merely a distraction. But it is a gesture asked for by Indigenous MPs. In February 2016, Liberal backbenchers Don Rusnak and Robert-Falcon Ouellette and NDP MP Romeo Saganash, as well as Independent Hunter Tootoo, called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to take Mr. Langevin’s name off the building. Do it, it was argued, in deference to survivors of the residential schools who shouldn’t be subjected to constant reminders of a man who “devastated their lives.”

It’s hardly a gesture that could be said to drain resources from other initiatives. Be wary of anyone who claims that the potable water budget was all spent on new PMO stationery, and perhaps not negotiating from a building basically called “In Your Face!” will help in some small way.

Some delicate flowers are seriously claiming that renaming a building in Ottawa is a grave insult that will cause irreparable damage to their culture. These highly selective stalwart defenders of culture and community ought to consider the fact that the man for whom that building was named insisted in a speech to Parliament that while Indigenous children left with their families could learn how to “read and write”, they must be separated from them if they are to “acquire the habits and tastes … of civilized people” – and pipe right down.

Anxiety about preserving our culture might be better spent on renaming something. Nothing threatens our culture more than refusing change; toppling statues is one of our traditions, and history is renaming. If you’ve spent any of the past week whining about the renaming of Langevin Block, you better have done so as a proud citizen of Turtle Island.

Source: Renaming Langevin Block isn’t rewriting history – it’s unearthing it – The Globe and Mail

The other related debate was regarding the appropriateness of the former US Embassy as an Indigenous “space.” The symbolism of the location, across the street from Parliament, contrasts with the symbolism of the architecture.

My take is that a creative architecture should be able to “repurpose” the space in a manner than includes Indigenous identity, much as the Global Centre of Pluralism’s renovation of the former war museum on Sussex Ave did with its Islamic screen motifs and choice of materials, colours and finishes.

Andrew Cohen’s critique is one of the better ones even if I don’t agree:

Beyond the venue, the building itself is unsuitable. It was designed by an American architect and finished in limestone, mimicking Beaux Arts. John Ralston Saul, the provocative writer and philosopher, calls it “an imitation of an imitation,” inconsistent in tone with the parliamentary precinct.

If it is questionable artistically, symbolically it’s awful. Do we want to offer Indigenous organizations an outpost of the American Empire, which deceived, displaced and murdered native Americans? Do we want Indigenous Canada to bury its heart on Wellington Street?

Let us recognize, as well, that this centre is not conceived in yesterday’s Ottawa, which was deaf to the aboriginal story. It comes amid a spirited effort to reverse a history of sorrow. Last week, for example, the National Gallery of Canada opened its new galleries of Canadian and Indigenous art. Next week, the Museum of Canadian History will open its new Canadian History Hall. Its president, Mark O’Neill, says that “Indigenous history is incorporated into every part of the most comprehensive exhibition of the Canadian story ever presented.” The National Arts Centre has announced its first artistic director of Indigenous theatre. The other day the Governor-General gave awards to 29 Canadians showing “outstanding Indigenous leadership.”

No, all this does not put things right. But institutional Canada, in its earnest way, is starting to embrace the Indigenous reality. Indeed, the elevation of the relationship between the government and first peoples may become the proudest legacy of the Trudeau government. But this repurposed Indigenous space is a bad idea. On the 150th anniversary of Confederation, why not think more boldly? Mr. Saul suggests razing the old embassy. He proposes a larger, elegant building, flowing from a rigorous international design competition. It would echo the motif of Parliament, draw on its materials and produce something modern and arresting.

It might hold two museums of political and aboriginal history, and offices for parliamentarians. Or serve as a repository of our founding documents, like the Quebec Act and the BNA Act. This would be the right building in the right place at the right time for Canada. It would make, in itself, a dazzling moral statement about this country and the people we are.

Turning an embassy into ‘Indigenous space’ is a classic government misjudgment

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About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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