Learning From the Past

In our 150th year of Confederation we need to celebrate the amazing country we have, but we should also recognize that each generation of Canada learns from the mistakes of the past. It is difficult, however, for us to erase the past based on the values of the present. I will explore this recent trend in my next two columns.

In June, Prime Minister Trudeau announced that the historic building that houses the Prime Minister’s Office will no longer be named Langevin Block in honour of Sir Hector-Louis Langevin. Langevin was a Father of Confederation who attended the Charlottetown, Quebec, and London conferences and was a champion for the union of French and English Canada. Largely forgotten now, the building had honoured his role in the formation of the country for over 120 years. Prime Minister Trudeau is removing his name because Langevin was involved in the formation of the residential schools system. Langevin defended the system by saying “in order to educate [Indigenous] children properly we must separate them from their families. Some people may say that this is hard but if we want to civilize them we must do that”.

In his bid to become Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau decided to emulate the iconic Sir Wilfrid Laurier and his “sunny ways” approach to governing. Laurier is one of our greatest leaders. The first French-Canadian Prime Minister he personified the promise of the young Canada. A century later he is honoured in all corners of Canada from a prestigious university to the five dollar bill. With this in mind, most Canadians would be shocked to learn that he once described the Métis people of Manitoba as “more ignorant and less civilized than the whites”. Fortunately, this horrible sentiment is not something we normally associate with Laurier, but there it is in our historic record. To be fair, there are even more troubling quotes from Sir John A. Macdonald with respect to Aboriginal Canadians, so this is not a Liberal versus Conservative issue. Canada has a representative democracy, so we should not be surprised that parliamentarians held views that were widespread in their era. Recognizing this fact does not condone these attitudes, but merely puts them into historic context.

Prime Minister Harper apologized for the terrible upheaval, trauma and dislocation caused by the residential school program in Canada. Over multiple generations, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families, stripped of their language and culture and often subjected to horrible abuse. For 129 years, governments, religious institutions and educators were involved in a system that represents the darkest blight on our nation’s history. As part of the apology, the Prime Minister launched the Truth & Reconciliation Commission to help our country heal and form a new relationship with Indigenous peoples “based on the knowledge of our shared history, a respect for each other and a desire to move forward together”. Integral to reconciliation is educating Canadians about this sad chapter in our history so that future generations can become part of moving forward.

The Langevin case is just one example of a growing trend towards erasing controversial figures from our public spaces. In the U.S., Princeton and Yale Universities have faced pressure to remove the names of prominent figures because of their racist attitudes. Closer to home, Ryerson University has faced pressure to remove its namesake because Egerton Ryerson’s work was used in the creation of the residential school program. In these debates, the positive contributions of these figures are often dwarfed by their repugnant statements or attitudes. In the case of Ryerson, should his ground-breaking work advocating for universal education in Canada not be considered alongside his connection to the creation of residential schools?

Looking back at past attitudes from the comfort of the present shows that perfection is nearly impossible to attain. The iconic Mahatma Ghandi used non-violence to lead the campaign for Indian independence, but it is less well known that he had held deeply prejudiced views towards black South Africans from his time in that country. Sir Winston Churchill, whom many (myself included) view as one of the most important figures of the 20th century held unapologetically colonialist views towards India and his indifference towards that country contributed to a famine that killed hundreds of thousands of people. Whether on the world stage or in our Parliament, the attitudes of important figures were as much a reflection of widespread attitudes of the era as the unique views of that person. The fact that attitudes have changed is central to an understanding of our history and something we should celebrate as a society.

If Langevin’s name is being removed from a building because of his views toward Indigenous peoples, should not Laurier or Macdonald be next? Is it possible to recognize figures from our past when we know their legacy contains both positive and negative elements? In my next column I will explore how we might grapple with these questions and why a rational approach is needed to preserve our history.

To learn more on the Langevin legacy and the complicated figures in Canadian history, I would suggest reading Peter Shawn Taylor’s piece “The case for keeping ‘Langevin Block’.” On the need for a formal process and a serious public debate on historical renaming, see Bob Rae’s CBC interview here. Finally, Malcolm Gladwell discusses grappling with difficult historical legacies in a fantastic episode of his podcast Revisionist History, found here.