You are here

Monumental mistakes

John Bell

September 19, 2017

The old saying that history is written by the victors is made evident in the monuments that adorn—or rather, that pollute—our public spaces. The central park in London, Ontario, where I grew up was named after Queen Victoria, Empress of India, and prominently featured a cenotaph, a veterans’ plaque, a statue in tribute to the Boer War and a decommissioned WWII Sherman tank.

I think I sense a theme.

As a kid I played war on that tank, and accepted the stories of heroic warriors and benevolent empire as “history,” literally carved in stone. But growing up and studying history meant shucking off those assumptions and trying to put myself in the place of the vanquished, the exploited and the oppressed. Yesterday’s hero was at best a mere mortal with feet of clay.

The study of history brought me to Marxism, which in turn revolutionized my understanding of history. Gone was the endless parade of great men (and very occasionally, women) doing great feats and having great ideas. History is revealed as a struggle between classes of people, classes created and conditioned by the way society’s productive forces are organized. Individuals are representatives of class forces, and “culture” is a historically specific construction. The ruling ideas of any age are overwhelmingly the ideas of its ruling class.

In 1843, young Karl Marx wrote to a student friend calling for “ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.”

Our battle for the interpretation of history, the ruthless criticism of all that exists, isn’t new, but the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville—purportedly in protest over the city’s plan to remove a statue of Robert E Lee—has brought it to the front burner.

Robert Lee IV has evidently subjected his own family to ruthless criticism. Given a platform at the MTV awards show he said: “We have made my ancestor an idol of white supremacy, racism and hate. As a pastor it is my moral duty to speak out against racism, America's original sin. Today, I call on all of us with privilege and power to answer God's call to confront racism and white supremacy head-on. We can find inspiration in the Black Lives Matter movement, the women who marched in the Women's March in January and especially Heather Heyer who died fighting for her beliefs in Charlottesville.” Lee’s statement proved too “ruthless” for his North Carolina United Church of Christ congregation; he has been forced to resign.

Genocidal John A Macdonald

If Lee can face the honest truth about his great-grandfather, surely we a nation can face the truth about the “great” men who founded Canada, like John A. Macdonald. I haven’t space here to catalogue the pros and cons of the life and career of our first Prime Minister. But since the hue and cry has peaked with a call from the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario to remove Macdonald’s name from any schools that carry it, let’s look at their motivation.

The teachers demand is rooted in the recently completed Truth and Reconciliation Commission on racism and First Nations in Canada, and singles out Macdonald “to recognize his central role as an architect of genocide against Indigenous peoples, the impact that this has had on the relationship between Indigenous students and non-Indigenous students, parents, educators, and the ways in which his namesake buildings can contribute to an unsafe space to learn and to work.”

Macdonald was not just PM, but also Minister of Indian Affairs for nine years. As James Daschuk’s 2013 book, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life documents, he was not only the architect of the Residential School system (that claimed the lives of 6,000 First Nations children—and probably many more). He conspired with the financial powers behind the railway to break treaties and deliberately starve reserve-bound people by failing to deliver food. He created a pass system that made western reserves into prisons. Government appointed agents told reservation farmers what crops they could grow and broke up any collective, cooperative type of farming by mandating the use of small individual holding that were much less efficient. (For more read Lost Harvests: Prairie Indian Reserve Farmers and Government Policy)

Every step as designed to break down and impoverish First Nations, and to force assimilation. Some quibble at the use of the word genocide to describe it; what better word to describe cold-blooded wholesale murder, theft and sabotage in the interest of capital and colonialism.

Cue the clown car of conservative pundits. Macdonald’s defenders make a lot of indignant noise, but don’t bother to refute any facts. We’re told his name was sacred because 1) if we question John A. we question Canada itself, and 2) he was no more racist than everybody else at the time.

As for the first point, yes by all means let’s take off the obligatory blinders of patriotism and examine our colonialist state, past and present, warts and all.

As for the second: there is plenty of evidence that Macdonald was quite a bit more racist than many, if not most of his contemporaries. And there were many active anti-racist Canadians before and after confederation, just as there were many white abolitionists in the US. But wait a second, even if this were true, it is a hell of an admission. White Canadians were racists. So it stands to reason that their Canada—with its laws, education curricula, and all the rest—would be thoroughly imbued with that racism as well.

This would seem a very good reason to take a long, hard look at Canada and ask whether that racism is still there. Did it just evaporate, like magic, as Conrad Black would have us believe? It might be painful to face, but let’s hear Assembly of First Nation Grand Chief Perry Bellegarde: “This is not about revising the history of Canada, it’s about being honest and telling the truth. We have a shared history, but we have more importantly a shared future, so let’s build a country on truth and honesty.”

But the Christie Blatchfords and Margaret Wentes and Conrad Blacks and Rex Murphys, etc., don’t care about truth and honesty. They don’t really care about history, with their bronze idols and whitewash. They aren’t defending statues, they’re defending the status quo.

Geo Tags: 

Featured Event



Visit our YouTube Channel for more videos: Our Youtube Channel
Visit our UStream Channel for live videos: Our Ustream Channel