The last five years have seen a re-evaluation of public history. Beginning with the Rhodes Must Fall movement in Cape Town, popular movements have argued and fought for the removal of commemorative statues of toxic historical figures. Movements have targeted memorials of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes, statues honouring Confederate soldiers from the American Civil War, and honourifics for Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A Macdonald.
In each case, defenders of the statues have argued that removing the statues would constitute “erasing history.” This might seem like a curious complaint at first: Canadians are not about to forget about Canada’s first Prime Minister any time soon. The internet provides plenty of resources, and history will still be taught in schools. Taking down a statue is obviously a long way from the Orwellian project of deleting something from the historical record. However, the complaint must have some intuitive pull as people keep making it. In a recent article, I take up the case of Macdonald and use it to spell out both the best way to understand the erasing history defence, and suggest ways to engage it on its core concern.