Skip to content

A Modest Proposal for Challenged and Removed Historical Statues

I am Canadian through and through.  I have been following the statue removals and challenges in Canada and US for a while.  I’ve also followed the park, military base, building and street renaming challenges, etc.  I totally agree that these celebratory artifacts should be addressed.

As a Canadian we share this continent (I think we have about two-thirds of it) with the USA.  As such, we often have as much knowledge (and sadly, sometimes more) about US history than Canadian history along our so-called undefended border.

We, in Canada, have really bad statues, building names, and street names too and most are there without context or explanation about some different time in history.  I believe that there is a too-high risk of celebration of the dominant historical story rather than a nation-building story where all paths are respected.

Winston Churchill quote: A nation that forgets its past has no future.

The creation of the United States was heavily influenced by the French revolution thinking and creation of their country – Libertéégalitéfraternité French for “liberty, equality, fraternity”, is the national motto of France.

The US version became – Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. If I remember my [Canadian] US history lessons well, we were taught that the pursuit of happiness was a nicer way of saying the right to own property (at least by white men) and at the time that included slaves.  US constitutional rights protect their freedom of the press and of speech with few limitations.

Canada, on the other hand, was created in 1867.  The thinking at the time was heavily influenced by the recent American Civil War and that the belief that the American experiment had been a failure and being invaded under the Monroe doctrine in 1812 was in living memory.  Therefore, our country’s motto was enshrined in the BNA Act as Peace, Order and Good Government.  We have boring stability at our roots!  Then again there was much legal discrimination especially to blacks, indigenous peoples, women, and more that continue to this day. Our 1982 Constitution Act was ‘patriated’ back to Canada and enshrined equality without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.  Our Supreme Court eventually defined ‘sex’ to include sexual orientation and trans rights as protected groups.  Canada remains one of the few countries that has never had a national revolution or national civil war despite being officially – originally- ‘two nations’ with two founding peoples with two primary languages, two ‘official’ religions (originally), and two sets of laws (Common and Code Civile).  Our history is truly endless conversations among Canadians and negotiations between the Federal and Provincial Governments.  We talk – a lot.  Canadian constitutional rights protect our rights more broadly – Freedom of Expression – freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.  We have one major limitation.  Our Supreme Court decided that our Freedom of Expression did not extend to hate speech or expression. m I agree and strongly support that limitation to our rights.

It can be argued that if we forget history it is a terrible thing for many reasons too numerous to list here.  That said, I believe that some past history should reside in our GLAM sector institutions. (GLAM – Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums).  We are ready to preserve these artifacts of history and provide context in our digital and physical curations and displays.  Destroying them without a plan risks national amnesia.  That is the diametric opposite of the need to learn, reflect and engage.

Here are a few examples that I can recall.

Think about Confederate General Robert E Lee.  A shallow version of history holds him up as a Confederate defender of the slave state(s). Full context could include his larger story.  If you’ve visited Washington DC you see his home (Arlington) at the top of hill in Arlington National Cemetery.  While he was leading the war in the South his wife was evicted from her ancestral home and over 20,000 Union Civil War dead were buried there.  It’s a fascinating story including how the Federal government acquired the land (basically sued first then SCOTUS ordered them to buy it).  In the end it took Robert Todd Lincoln to finish the deal!  [].

Wikipedia’s entry on Lee’s post-Civil War life is also fascinating. [] He wrote: “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.” “Several historians have noted the paradoxical nature of Lee’s beliefs and actions concerning race and slavery. While Lee protested he had sympathetic feelings for blacks, they were subordinate to his own racial identity. While Lee held slavery to be an evil institution, he also saw some benefit to blacks held in slavery. While Lee helped assist individual slaves to freedom in Liberia, and provided for their emancipation in his own will, he believed the enslaved should be eventually freed in a general way only at some unspecified future date as a part of God’s purpose.  Slavery for Lee was a moral and religious issue, and not one that would yield to political solutions.”

I don’t fully believe all of these interpretations of Lee’s history but the background is more fulsome that just black and white.  I put them here because the conversation is difficult.  It’s not complicated to define and see evil.  It is complex to fix the ripple effect of evil. It ust be done.

I do believe that Truth must come before Reconciliation.  And that’s a long and painful process of recognition of our own privilege and that privilege includes looking at history through the lens of values and principles formed in our 21st Century lives.

I also subscribe to the principles, values, and codes of modern librarianship.  One of the basics is now enshrined in our Charter of Rights and is most evident in our professional practice in our anti-censorship, anti-book banning, and stands that are pro-academic and intellectual freedom.  It is a common aphorism of librarians that “Our collections include something to offend everyone.”  That said, we aim for balance to ensure that the record is full – sometimes we fail and our profession is working on our taxonomies, cataloguing, collection development, and curation/displays to address the historical under-collecting and naming conventions in, among others, religions, world cultures, Black history, women’s history, and Indigenous collections.  Our principle is that all voices need to be heard in our libraries and to address the historic privileged and systemic biases that we have.  It will take time but people are working on it.

So, here’s my perspective on the statues issues we see in the news.

We should not censor these artifacts but recognize their history and provide a place for them to be displayed where context can be provided.  Those of us in our memory institutions hold that as a core value.  These statues need to be taken down from the places of celebration and moved to heritage memory places that can provide context so that we can learn from past mistakes and, indeed, evil.

Ever wondered why so many ancient marble statues and bust ar missing their noses?  There are many theories as to why, in Ancient Egypt when a noble died, or a dynasty or pharaoh changed, the noses were removed to take away their breath and thus their voice and influence on future generations.  Indeed, the same thing happened around the Mediterranean in Greece, the Roman and Ottoman Empires.

The bust of an Egyptian official dating from the 4th century BC.

Indeed, often in the first battles of a war from the Alexandria Library to modern times is the destruction of national memory in a culture’s libraries.  I think there are only four books extant from the Mayan, Inca, and Aztec cultures.  All the rest were destroyed by the Conquistadores. If you want to destroy a culture, destroy it’s books and cultural memories.

So, here’s my modest idea.  It would need a lot of work, support, and funding, BUT, if we did this nationally, we could save these artifacts of history but also put them into their proper context, acknowledge the truth, and build reconciliation over time.  I have friends that think ‘history’ is facts and immutable, and others who think that history is malleable and very subject to interpretation.  I fall into the second camp.  I am a creature of privilege and have learned knowledge that is founded in the interpretations that I was taught.  Much of this was wrong in many aspects from an historical perspective, and, we often find, our lessons lacking in acknowledgement of other voices and experiences.  I need to unlearn/relearn much of my learning.  Our library finding tools are also biased and artifacts of perspectives, beliefs, and ages past.  We need to acknowledge this more broadly and choose to address this on a holistic level where everyone wins and can find themselves in our shared cultural fabric.  Debate about the interpretation of history is not an objection to the goal, it’s a good first step in path to reconciliation.

So, let’s set a goal in the wider GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums) Sector to propose a solution to the issues that have arisen around statues, and street and building names.

We should lobby our Federal governments to work on addressing the policy and systemic issues in our sector by working with our sector to build truth and reconciliation for all people.  I believe that it is totally valid to state that everyone benefits from this including the BIPOC communities but also the privileged in society.  And, as I said earlier, acknowledging a deeper truth precedes reconciliation and a more perfect society and journey.

A Modest Proposal

Simply . . .

  1. Let’s develop a plan that collects and stores these artifacts – statues, memorials, building name signs and street signs and more artifacts of a colonial, racist, sexist, anti-indigenous, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and homophobic past.  These can become anchors for teaching.
  2. Let’s collaborate and bring down the walls between our memory institutions – Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums.
  3. Let’s address systemic bias in our cataloguing and taxonomy finding tools and implement these changes on a national and international scale.
  4. Let’s develop new partnerships to execute on our plan – Parks Canada, the US National Parks Service, and more.
  5. Let’s think BIG and seek funding and support to provide a solution that respects history while putting it into context for future generations.

In Canada, a small group of committed people can make a start and leave a major legacy.  I will step up and volunteer to participate.  I know that there are the visionary talents at Library & Archives Canada (with its National Portrait Gallery collection), the National Gallery of Canada, Our National Museums Network, supported by the Canadian Federation of Library Associations, the Canadian Museum Association, the Association of Canadian Archivists and our associations of galleries – all the while working with  voices from communities under-heard in the past.

In the USA, you have the Library of Congress, ALA with its DC office, the Smithsonian with its 3D imaging capacity,  NARA and the National Archives, the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, IMLS, OCLC, network of presidential libraries, NEH, and more!  Indeed, this is an impressive list with many cooperative projects underway.  This is another project that could underpin future understanding with efforts undertaken today.

It seems simple but you already know that this will be hard.  I have faith in the wisdom, talents, and vision of my professional colleagues.

What is Step 1 in the Twelve (12) Step Programs - Renascent

Let’s do it.


Note: This post isn’t partisan nor political.  It is only small ‘p’ political in that government policy would be involved.  This is an issue of morality, ethics, and intellectual freedom which should – all the time – rise above partisanship.

Some interesting links:

Pulling down statues? It’s a tradition that dates back to U.S. independence

Enthusiasm for the American Revolution led colonists to burn, disfigure, and deface any symbol of Britain and its hated king.

Find the Remnants of King George III’s Statue, Toppled in Bowling Green in 1776

Find the Remnants of King George III’s Statue, Toppled in Bowling Green in 1776

Why Are the Noses Broken on So Many Ancient Egyptian Statues?

Explore the statues, monuments and memorials of the Hill

18 Bronze statues and 2 memorials and it’is a pretty white group- 15 men and 7 women by my tally!  Sadly, out of the 7 women on the Hill, only Queen Victoria will remain when the Famous Five and the Queen Elizabeth II monuments will be temporarily relocated off the Hill to the Supreme Court lawn and the roundabout on Sussex Drive near Rideau Hall.  They will be returned to Parliament Hill once the Centre Block rehabilitation project has been completed.  This page really does need more context.

Posted on: July 6, 2020, 12:45 pm Category: Uncategorized

One Response

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. Marla Yudin said

    Excellent article. But the American Revolution was in 1775-1783. The French Revolution was after that in 1789.1799. So the Americans influenced the French, didn’t they?