Langevin, Ryerson, Cornwallis: Is our past unfit for the present? – Peter Shawn Taylor

More good commentary by Peter Shawn Taylor (The case for keeping ‘Langevin Block’ – Peter Shawn Taylor, Begbie’s Statue – Bill McKee) and useful citing of historian Witt’s test questions on renaming:

Yale University has long wrestled with similar complaints about Calhoun College, named for benefactor John C. Calhoun, a U.S. senator from South Carolina and outspoken proponent of slavery during the pre-Civil War era. Last year, Yale asked historian John Fabian Witt to resolve the controversy. His response was a unique series of questions meant to gauge the validity of renaming demands. It’s a first stab at a coherent, standardized system for settling commemoration disputes, and other U.S. institutions have quickly grasped its significance. Last month, the University of Mississippi employed Prof. Witt’s test in removing some controversial names from its campus, while letting other remain. In the absence of anything similar in Canada, we should adopt the Witt test to settle our own namesake dilemmas.

Prof. Witt begins with the overarching principal that name changes should be considered “exceptional events” and not frivolous or political acts. “Renaming has often reflected excessive confidence in moral orthodoxies,” he observes, pointing with caution to the Soviet Union. Then again, not every urge to rename is Orwellian: post-Apartheid South Africa or post-Nazi West Germany, for example.

To decide what deserves to be removed and what should stay, the Witt test applies four questions, modified here for domestic use, that weigh the actions and time periods of commemorated individuals.

  • First: Is the principal legacy of the namesake fundamentally at odds with Canadian values? This requires a broad understanding of the life’s work of the individual in question.
  • Second: Was the relevant principal legacy significantly contested during the namesake’s lifetime? Isolated statements or actions considered controversial today may have been conventional wisdom at the time. Context matters.
  • Third: At the time of the naming, was the namesake honoured for reasons fundamentally at odds with Canadian values? Why was this person commemorated?
  • Finally: Does the building play a substantial role in forming community? The more prominent the edifice, the greater the casefor retaining names of historical significance, Prof. Witt says.

Using the Witt test, Yale announced in February the removal of Mr. Calhoun’s name. White supremacy, it concluded, was his principal legacy. Mr. Calhoun claimed slavery was “a positive good” and that the Declaration of Independence erred in stating all men are created equal. For this, he was criticized in his own time and today.

Applying these same standards to Mr. Langevin, however, yields a different result. As an important French-Catholic Conservative federalist in the Confederation era, Mr. Langevin’s principal legacy was building a bicultural Canada, something once considered a great virtue in this country. This is why his name was placed on an important building in Ottawa. Though his name is today often paired with residential schools, Mr. Langevin was primarily involved with constructing the buildings, not championing the policies. The infamous speech he gave in Parliament on the subject was actually parroting what his boss – Sir John A. Macdonald – had said days earlier. While his comments are grating to modern ears, he was merely repeating widely accepted views from his time. The Witt test exonerates Mr. Langevin.

The legacies of Mr. Begbie, Mr. Ryerson, Mr. Cornwallis and the rest of Canada’s historically accused deserve a fair trial as well.

Source: Langevin, Ryerson, Cornwallis: Is our past unfit for the present? – The Globe and Mail

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The case for keeping ‘Langevin Block’ – Peter Shawn Taylor, Begbie’s Statue – Bill McKee

I agree with Taylor on the risks of ignoring the historical context and focusing only on one aspect of their role in Canadian society. Those who forget (or erase) history, are condemned to repeat it, albeit with twists. McKee’s point on interpretative panels is a better way:

Taken on its own, Langevin’s quotation is a devastating indictment to modern ears. But what if we let the tape roll a bit longer? Later in that same speech, for example, Langevin said it was his intention to give every native child who graduates from residential school a free homestead. And in response to Langevin, Edward Blake, the leader of the Liberal party of the day, not only used words to describe Indigenous men and women that would be considered horrific today, he also complained that Ottawa’s plan was overly generous. The Liberal party of the day wanted to spend far less on the native file.

Extreme narrow focus on a few sentences of one speech may provide damning evidence of Langevin’s unfitness for present-day memorialization. But in the context of his time, Langevin actually stands among the more enlightened representatives of the federal government. As for the accusation that Langevin believed in assimilation of the Indigenous community—a concept now properly and universally considered abhorrent—he is guilty as charged.

But assimilation was conventional wisdom among all elite thinkers of his era. If statements in support of it are to be considered sufficient reason for removal from the historical record, then every politician of note in Canada prior to the 21st century must eventually be struck from the record—from Macdonald to Sir Wilfrid Laurier on down. Even Pierre Trudeau, often considered the father of an inclusive, multicultural Canada, was a confirmed assimilationist. His 1969 White Paper on “Indian Policy” planned to eliminate Indigenous status entirely. When such a plan was firmly rejected by the Indigenous community, Trudeau replied bitterly, “We’ll keep them in the ghetto for as long as they want.” Is the legacy of Trudeau senior next on the list for erasure?

And entirely ignored within the current debate over Langevin and the residential school issue is his stature as a key Francophone Quebec federalist during the crucial pre-Confederation era, which was the reason his name ended up on a federal building in the first place. Reconciliation between French and English was once considered a great Canadian virtue. It should still count for something today.

As for Cornwallis, in 1749 he did declare a bounty of 10 British guineas for every Mi’kmaq scalp delivered to him during a colonial-era conflict known as Father Le Loutre’s War. Like Langevin’s speech on residential schools, singular attention on this one act seems sufficient to declare him unfit for present-day consumption. By any standard, scalping is an horrific act. But once again history throws up some uncomfortable facts.

Father Le Loutre’s War (1749 to 1755) was the handiwork of French Catholic priest Jean-Louis Le Loutre, who goaded local Mi’kmaq tribes into conflict with the British in hopes of reclaiming New Brunswick and Nova Scotia for the French. For added motivation, he explicitly promised to pay Mi’kmaq warriors a bounty for English scalps. And they delivered. In 1753, for example, Le Loutre was reimbursed 1,800 French livres by the colonial government in Quebec City for sums he paid to the Mi’kmaq for 18 English scalps.

The payment of scalp bounties was unsettlingly common throughout North America during the entire colonial period. It was, in fact, standing French policy to offer payments for the scalps of the English—men, women and children—as a subsidy to ensure the continued loyalty of allied Indigenous tribes. Scalp bounties in the English-speaking colonies generally only appeared when a war was on; and their value waned and fluxed depending on the public’s panic level. It thus seems unfair to use Cornwallis’s scalping proclamation as conclusive evidence against him when both sides in this ancient conflict, including those Mi’kmaq nations who today demand Cornwallis’s expulsion from the public square, were fully engaged in the repulsive tactic.

And while Amherst is widely considered to be the father of modern germ warfare for allegedly handing out smallpox-infected blankets to Indigenous foes, this is a falsehood. There is no proof he ever did such a thing. Amherst responded positively to the suggestion from a fellow officer in a letter dated July 16, 1763, but this came a month after the one and only time British troops actually stooped to such a tactic—during a native siege of Fort Pitt (near present-day Pittsburgh) on June 24, 1763.

Finally, Begbie was indeed responsible for sentencing six Indigenous leaders to hanging for their role in the killing of 20 non-natives during B.C.’s Chilcotin War. Yet condemning him into oblivion on this basis ignores his vast record of support and understanding for the province’s Indigenous communities at all other times. He was fluent in several Indigenous languages, recognized the concept of Aboriginal title in his rulings and took a strong position against racism. Begbie was perhaps the most liberal and native-friendly judge of his time. As for his controversial hanging decision, which the B.C. government recently apologized for, he had no choice. The death penalty was mandatory for murder cases. Despite all this, his own law society has removed him from the firmament.

To our great disadvantage, Canada has become obsessed with replaying a slow-motion, high-definition version of our past. Historical figures are now judged by intense focus on individual statements or actions. One ‘infraction’ at odds with current acceptable standards has become sufficient evidence for expulsion from present-day society. Yet it is reasonable, if not inevitable, to expect that every notable figure from the past has probably said or done something that will grate against modern sensibilities, particularly with respect to Indigenous relations. It is therefore only a matter of time before every statue, park and street named for an historical character in Canada is declared incompatible with the present.

But while the fraught relationship between colonial Canada and Indigenous peoples is an important component of our history, it is not its entirety. We should not allow current attention being paid to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings, necessary and disturbing as they may be, to become a mechanism that strips Canada of our most significant characters and events. Or removes the context and detail from the stories of who we are and where we came from.

Source: The case for keeping ‘Langevin Block’ – Macleans.ca

Bill McKee, the former curator of B.C. history at the Museum of Canadian History in Ottawa makes a sensible suggestion on how to keep historical names and statues while acknowledging the less savoury aspects of their legacy:

Removing his [Begbie’s] statue will accomplish nothing of general benefit. It would help to hide this sad part of our history. In its absence, no one will remember or learn a lesson to understand the native side of the Chilcotin War, and the complex story behind the execution of the chiefs.

I would suggest, rather than removing this important statue, a more useful step would be to provide interpretive panels explaining all parts of the life of Matthew Baillie Begbie, around the statue, similar to an interpretive exhibition in Vancouver’s Chinatown, just east of Carrell Street. The exhibition could highlight his impact upon our history, and focus on his impact upon First Nations, not as an aside, but a central part of our history.

Another important way to recognize the cost of the arrival of the British and Canadian fur traders, the participants in the several gold rushes and of the British colonial society upon our First Nations would be to erect another large statue recognizing the story of the Chilcotin War and the resulting executions of indigenous leaders. The funding could come from the public, as well as the City of New Westminster and the governments of B.C. and Canada. It could be located on the site of the former cemetery next to the new high school or near the courthouse, where the remains of the chiefs were possibly buried. I would think the site near the high school would be a chance to highlight the story of our First Nations to young people in New Westminster.

I also want to point out that the statue of Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie was created by Elek Imredy, a refugee who came to Canada from Hungary, after the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolution. Many people will recognize his “Girl in a Wetsuit” statue off of Stanley Park, at the entrance to Burrard Inlet, which was created at the request of the City of Vancouver. These statues are a reflection of the contributions of the many immigrants and refugees who have contributed to our history.

Please don’t remove the statue of Matthew Baillie Begbie.

Source: Opinion: Removing statue of Judge Begbie benefits no one

Why budget ‘gender statements’ are a bad idea

One thing to argue that gender and diversity analysis should include men (hard not to agree given some of the disturbing trends regarding education and outcomes), quite another to dismiss GBA entirely like Peter Shawn Taylor appears to do.

In my various analyses of diversity in government appointments, it is generally simpler to present one gender than both, as the numbers are simply the flip side of one another (and yes, traditionally women and other minorities have been under-represented). But narratives can and should be more inclusive.

And while Lilla’s thesis that identity politics led to the alienation of white males, it is more likely that the fundamental changes in the economy and the impact on white working class males played a larger part:

The Gender Statement’s ultimate consequence is to promote a winner-take-all gender competition—a battle between the sexes to see who can muster the best (that is, worst) numbers in making their case for systemic discrimination. The mere fact I’m writing this now—the heresy of men’s rights notwithstanding—proves the point. Ottawa’s plan to expand its Gender Statement in future years to include new identities such as ethnicity, age and sexual orientation can only raise this contrived grievance-search to new, intersectional heights.

At this point, I’m reminded of Columbia University humanities professor Mark Lilla’s much-shared essay in the New York Times, The End of Identity Liberalism, in which he unpacked the destructive impact of the political fixation on gender, racial and sexual identities on the U.S. election.

“A generation of liberals and progressives [have become] narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups,” he writes. Such obsessive attention to self-identity eventually caused white, predominantly-male Americans to similarly think of themselves as a disadvantaged group, thereby putting Donald Trump in the White House. “Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it,” Lilla concludes, calling on liberals to spend more time promoting shared experiences and values, rather than curating differences.

Surely this is the fire we’re playing at in Canada as well with the budget’s Gender Statement. It encourages Canadians to consider the country’s fiscal plan not in its broad sweep and affect on the country, but rather through the lens of narrowly-defined identity categories. And to succeed in this context, it becomes necessary to elevate whatever disadvantages your group might experience while ignoring those of competing groups.

This might work for a while. But eventually everyone will start to demand their special moment. Men might even wonder why they’re asked to pay 66 per cent of all taxes, while their problems get zero per cent of Ottawa’s sympathy and attention. And then what?

Source: Why budget ‘gender statements’ are a bad idea – Macleans.ca