Apr. 18, 2022

Rewriting history endangers democracy

Those who insist we must destroy all monuments to political leaders due to flaws in their character seek to destroy democracy and perpetuate the myth that political leaders are flawless.

These intolerant bigots are human and flawed themselves.

We recognize those we have honoured for their contributions to our nation and society. Of course, they are imperfect. If the people intent on destroying our history applied the same criteria to their associates and friends, they would have none.

Canada has a 470-year history written in political and ideological strife. The 300 years before confederation were tumultuous, and internal political strife drove our forefathers to confederation.

Before confederation, the bipartisan linguistic elements of the Province of Canada, then consisting of Upper and Lower Canada, rendered the province ungovernable.

British North America at the time included the provinces of Upper Canada, Lower Canada (amalgamated in 1840), Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and British Columbia.

At the same time, Canadian provinces were concerned about the possibility of American expansion to the north. The American civil war was over, and the USA had a large army that could be turned to expansion northward.

Britain had signalled that it wanted its colonies to become self-sufficient and was not enthused about protecting Canadian colonies from an American invasion.

America was in the process of purchasing Alaska and eyeing the Northwest Territories for expansion.

Lower Canada wanted its separate provincial status restored.

Negotiations were led by John A. Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier and resulted in a federation of four provinces, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The British North America Act became our constitution.

Canada was a new nation in a hurry to consolidate its holdings. Construction of a transcontinental railway to link British Columbia and the purchase and settlement of the Northwest Territories were priorities.

Confederation evolved:

Province or Territory Joined
New Brunswick 1867
Nova Scotia 1867
Ontario 1867
Quebec 1867
Manitoba 1870
Northwest Territories 1870
British Columbia 1871
Prince Edward Island 1873
Yukon 1898
Alberta 1905
Saskatchewan 1905
Newfoundland 1949
Nunavut 1999

The above is a thumbnail of a much larger and complicated history resplendent with achievement and punctuated by scandal. We did some things very well and others very poorly. It is our shared history of triumphs and tragedies.

Many of the intolerant self-satisfied groups attacking our historical figures are delusional. They simultaneously take pride in identities that separate them from the mainstream while demanding mainstream equality as if it is possible to make all people precisely equal to all others.

Our characteristics define us as individuals, and a free democracy recognizes the value of the freedoms and rights of the individual.

The debate over history, and the character of our heroes has always been controversial. In recent years, the discussion has taken a turn. 

Some people look at leaders from earlier generations and see flaws that should disqualify their statues from places of honour. To honour them, they say, is to condone racism, sexism, or homophobia, and they insist we should cleanse our public spaces of them.

On the other side, some people see virtues in the same leaders that should shield them from criticism. They try to cleanse schools of materials that might make students feel uncomfortable if they learn about these flaws and the dark chapters in our history.

Each side scorns the other with righteous intolerance.

Most of us would agree that there is a reasonable middle ground. We can honour a person’s good deeds and be critical of their failings. It’s not one or the other, and doing both is a matter of survival. A nation that shares no heroes will not long be a nation, and a democracy that demands blind devotion to heroes will not long be a democracy.

The intolerant bigots who wreck monuments and demand that we erase history bring nothing of value to the table. Without recognizing the flaws and mistakes in our history, we risk repeating them.

Those who attack our monuments and history must be dealt with as the destructive vandals they are.

We do not build a more compassionate and inclusive society by erasing the markers leading the way to a better future.