Learning From the Past (Part II)

In my last post, I explored the inherent challenges posed by revisiting our history. Should an important French-Canadian leader from our past be struck from the present because he held views that are inappropriate today but were commonplace 150 years ago? If the Langevin name is removed from the public sphere because he held troubling views towards Indigenous peoples 150 years ago, should not tributes to Laurier and others be removed as well?

This renaming phenomenon is an example of the trend towards presentism. Presentism is the practice of using present-day values to judge the past. Many historians are troubled by presentism because it can introduce a bias to the interpretation of past events. It can also be used by civic or political leaders to advance a specific political agenda by selectively highlighting figures or issues from our past. I believe that Prime Minister Trudeau has engaged in political presentism with the removal of the Langevin name. His team hopes that Langevin’s controversial association with residential schools will make their decision immune from criticism, but I don’t think it should. As I said in my first column, wanting to preserve and understand our history does not amount to endorsing it.

Prime Minister Trudeau announced the removal of the Langevin name from the parliamentary precinct building on June 21 as part of National Aboriginal Day activities. His other gestures that day were to change the name of the day itself – to National Indigenous Peoples Day – and to dedicate another building in the area to First Nations arts and culture. While these are nice gestures, they are largely symbolic and do not advance reconciliation or improve the lives of Indigenous people. I also believe that the government hoped these gestures would allow them to avoid tough questions on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women inquiry, which is floundering under the heavy weight of resignations and the growing lack of confidence from Indigenous leaders. Our Prime Minister preferred to ceremoniously censure a long-dead Father of Confederation rather than face his present day responsibilities and personal commitment to reconciliation.

As I say frequently, as an opposition Member of Parliament, I am conscious of always coming off as overly negative. My job is to critique the government and I try and do that to the best of my ability, but I also like to present alternative solutions to pressing issues. How do we balance present day concerns about historic figures connected to problematic parts of our history with their significant contributions to Canada? The lawyer and amateur historian in me has been looking for a rational and balanced approach to consider this issue, and thanks to an excellent column by Peter Shawn Taylor I believe we should look south for the answer.

Yale University has grappled for a few years with the issue of renaming Calhoun College because of its namesake’s association with slavery. To examine the issue in a manner befitting a top university, they established a committee chaired by prominent historian John Fabian Witt. The committee heard from a diverse range of voices on the issue and established guiding principles for renaming or changing public spaces at the university. Central to their approach was the recognition that there should be a basic presumption against the renaming of a building, especially if the namesake was someone who had made profound contributions to the institution.

The Witt Committee established four considerations for Yale to use and these guiding principles can easily be repurposed for any institution or government. Here are my re-purposed criteria for the Canadian context. First, is the principal legacy of the historic figure completely at odds with current values? Second, were the views of the historic figure controversial or divisive in their time? Third, at the time the historic figure was honoured, was the reason for this honour the source of controversy? And fourth, has the name associated with the public space had a significant role in forming the community in which it rests?

The criteria proposed by the Witt Committee provides a balanced approach to the issue of renaming and allows for important context to be considered. If the “principal legacy” of the historic figure is the subject of controversy there may be grounds for renaming, but if their wider legacy is far beyond the controversy it would point towards not renaming. Further, if the figure held views that were controversial in their time renaming might also be warranted. If their views were “unexceptional” for their era it would support the status quo.

Applying these principles to the Canadian cases like the Langevin Building or Ryerson University would lead to the names being retained. These principles would also provide an orderly process for possibly removing names in the future in a manner that would be worthy of a mature country like Canada. As was once said, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.