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Letter to the editor: 'Tearing down statues' is not the same as erasing history

From Curtis Mesher,
Kuujjuaq, Nunavik

This statue of Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada's first Prime Minister, no longer stands outside city hall in Victoria, B.C. "To remove a statue in this day and age is not close to "erasing history," it is a contemporary decision to stop certain things being honoured going forward. It is people now deciding what they want or don't want now," writes reader Curtis Mesher.
Jordoon/Wikimedia Commons photo

Dear editor;
The simplistic depiction in your editorial of people looking to rename places or remove statues as "screaming" and "tearing down statues" is just as unhelpful to discussing history "warts and all" as the approaches you mentioned.

People can learn about history without leaving names and statues up simply because they're already there. For instance, I know lots about people though I've never seen a statue of them or something named after them… in fact nearly all of the history I know did not come from commemorations for the events/individuals in the form of statues and names, they came from history books.

Discontinuing commemorations for something/someone is not "erasing them from history," it is simply refusing to commemorate them going forward. It's a collective decision weighing the total context now to decide if people want that now. If things end up being seen as unworthy of such honours, the honours stop.

People in the present have the right to decide what the present reflects and what the future will be, that's a cornerstone of humanity's entire existence on Earth. In fact, this cycle of change and action over time is what 'history' reflects.

This reductive view of "erasing history" supposes that nothing can or should be done now to lessen the presence of past figures now and going forward. It relies on a lopsided view of history and inflates the value of some views by a simplistic assertion that people were just as racist and we're merely applying a modern lens in a situation that does not call for it.

However, this is a one-sided view of history which erases the fact that there were also many people who did not think the same and in fact had visions closer to our modern conceptions. It also erases the perspectives of those who were not powerful or well-regarded enough to have a say when the honours were given at the time, yet were negatively affected nonetheless.

Just as there were racists in the past, there were people decrying such discrimination at the same time. Not everyone was just like Rhodes or John A. MacDonald or anyone else as an example, you can always find dissenting views no matter the era. To pretend otherwise is actually erasing history more than mothballing a statue or changing a name would be.

To remove a statue in this day and age is not close to "erasing history," it is a contemporary decision to stop certain things being honoured going forward. It is people now deciding what they want or don't want now. That's life.

In some cases it will be preferable to leave things as they are, or to add more details so it's "warts and all." And in others it will be preferable to remove a name or statue completely. None of these decisions will be "erasing history" and applying such a simple criticism to something that will be a contextual consideration to place and time (both of the past the figures occupied and of the present discussion) is against the spirit of what you say you wish to see.

People learn about Stalin and Lenin even if people decided to rename Stalingrad and Leningrad. Monuments to the Nazis erected in their honour have been torn down and people have no trouble learning about their place in history. Changing 'Frobisher Bay' to 'Iqaluit' or 'Fort Chimo' to 'Kuujjuaq' did not erase history, it was a recognition that the names of the past were not useful to the present. For certain people who were sidelined from discussions when it would have mattered in the first place, the ability to be heard now is merely the fruit of discussing history "warts and all."

Even with such changes in how things are recognized, history will always be there. If names and statues meant to honour things in the past end up being discontinued once people decide they do not wish to honour them anymore, it is adding to their history and not erasing it. In fact, sometimes history is easier to understand fully once honours meant to influence people's perceptions have been discontinued and future generations assess it in a less one-sided manner than occurs when plaudits have been placed all around them.

If we want to talk about history "warts and all," we can't minimize those who think differently than us as some sort of screaming mob of vandals or in any other fashion. To do so is to erase history.