I’m a voracious reader at the best of times, so put me in quarantine or isolation for most of the summer and paper cuts become a real hazard.

Like most people (you know, the ones not out tearing down statues and the like) I have very real mixed feelings about looking back in history through a lens of modern times and passing absolute judgment on the party one has decided to put under a microscope.

And, by this point, we all know where that leads, with people screaming for a name to be removed from a school or a statue to be toppled over.

It’s a complex situation that can be almost impossible to navigate at the best of times. And, let’s be honest, it’s a difficult conversation for many to have and, as we saw with a certain football team, the majority doesn’t always win the day. Far from it.

Interestingly enough, I found a pretty decent example of the pitfalls of name erasing and a direction that makes a whole lot more sense right next door with our neighbours in Manitoba, courtesy of an article penned by one Michael Zwaagstra.

The pitfall was illustrated by two schools in Manitoba, the Cecil Rhodes School in Winnipeg and Nellie McClung Collegiate, a high school in Manitou.

If a band of petitioners get their way, the Cecil Rhodes School will soon be renamed.

Rhodes was a 19th century British politician who served as prime minister of Cape Colony, a British colony in present day South Africa.

And, oh yes, he also founded a little enterprise known as the De Beers diamond mining company.

He also donated a significant sum of money to establish the Rhodes Scholarship in 1902. Fast-forward 118 years, or so, and the scholarship still exists today, making it possible for students around the world to attend the University of Oxford.

Unfortunately, like most politicians of his time, Rhodes was a racist and his imperialist policies actually paved the way for the formal adoption of apartheid in South Africa.

So, even though many students have been helped over the years by his scholarship, that does not give him a get-out-of-jail-free card for his racist views. Nor should it.

However, if the call is out to drop his name, then one has to ponder why the same call hasn’t gone out for Nellie McClung Collegiate, named after a woman who believed in white racial superiority and supported the forced sterilization of people with disabilities.

Doesn’t seem to make much sense, does it? That is, until you realize McClung played a big part in getting women the right to vote in Manitoba and other parts of the country.

An impressive achievement at the time to say the least, but, as that old proverb good for the goose, good for the gander says, in this case it would seem to indicate the only way forward is to rename every school across the country whose namesake supported or adopted racist views.

We’re going to need a whole lot of new names and, while we’re at it, we may want to remember a guy named John, who once quoted a certain Galilean from Nazareth as saying, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

But, there is, indeed, another option. It is called knowledge, education and understanding, which brings us to our third Manitoba learning academy, Wolseley School in Winnipeg.

Even though the school is named after a 19th century British military general who led the Red River Expeditionary Force that forcibly suppressed the Metis people, the Manitoba Metis Federation opposes the proposed renaming of the school.

The federation wants future students to remember what Wolseley did. And that’s a lot less likely to happen if his name disappears from the building.

I agree with the author’s contention that Canada’s history is a messy one, and that many of our heroes were also villains.

And we should make sure our students learn about our history, warts and all, instead of trying to erase it.

Food for thought.

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  1. The simplistic depiction of people “Screaming” and “tearing down statues” is just as unhelpful to a fruitful discussion ‘warts and all’ as those approaches you mentioned.
    People can learn about history without leaving names and statues up just because they’re already there. For instance, I know lots about people without ever seeing 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 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 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. 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 MacDonald or whoever else you’d like to pick 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 would be.
    To remove a statue in this day and age is not close to “erasing history”, it is contemporary decision to stop certain things being honoured going forward. It is people now deciding what they want/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 present and past the figures occupied) 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. History will always be there even if names and statues meant to honour things in the past were discontinued once people decide they do not wish to honour them anymore. In fact, sometimes history is better to understand once honours meant to influence people have been discontinued, and future generations assess it in a less one-sided manner than occurs with plaudits being 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.

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