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.
The Canadian Case
John A Macdonald was Canada’s first Prime Minister and is celebrated for his nation-building vision. Throughout the countries there are statues that commemorate him and buildings which bear his name. His role in Canadian history became publicly scrutinized following the Indigenous Idle No More campaign beginning in 2012. Present political commitments to restitution for the genocide committed against Indigenous peoples required reckoning with the historical legacy of Macdonald. Put simply, Macdonald’s nation-building project involved the destruction of Indigenous cultures and the seizing of Indigenous land, and this accomplished through methods ranging from military suppression to enforced famine.
Some groups acted upon this reappraisal of Macdonald by deciding to remove honourifics. The most prominent case has been the city of Victoria’s decision to remove a statue of Macdonald from the front of City Hall. The statue’s removal was opposed by opinion writers and politicians and both used the claim that removing the statue constituted “erasing history.” Notable about this line is that defences do not necessarily defend the character of Macdonald: they accept that what he did was morally wrong. Rather, they defend the preservation of the statue by appealing to Macdonald’s historical importance.
Making Sense of Erasing History
Commemorative monuments such as the Macdonald statue are pieces of public history. They are historical insofar as they present particular conceptions of the past. A monument of Macdonald not only recalls the person John A Macdonald, but also presents a way of understanding him (e.g. as a politician). The history is public insofar as the monument in question is publicly situated. As Alan Gordon notes, public history lets us talk about public memory. This is the conceptions of history that let a society transmit conceptions of the past across generations.
The public placing of commemorative monuments such as the Macdonald statue outside Victoria City Hall tie the history embodied by that monument to a particular place. The public placing of the monument also implies a connection between the statue’s content and the public in which it’s placed. The Macdonald statue isn’t standing outside Victoria City Hall for no particular reason, but because Macdonald has some significance to Victoria specifically.
The connection between the monument and the public lets us investigate just what is the significance of the history the monument embodies. Benedict Anderson describes national identity as an “imagined community.” Specifically, a nation is composed of people who imagine themselves fundamentally similar to each other by way of sharing a historical lineage. “Canadian” is an identity which is imagined to project back through time (maybe to 1867, maybe to 1608). “Canadian’s” passage through time is defined by certain historical events. These events not only identify the beginning of “Canadian,” but generally serve to mark it off from other identities.
What does this all mean for the erasing-history defence? The history embodied by the Macdonald statue is essential to the Canadian identity. Removing the monument from its public place removes it from public memory. In turn, this means that the history embodied by the monument loses its place in defining the public. The history is ‘erased’ from the Canada-defining narrative. This is the proper way to understand the erasing history defence: some piece of history is being removed from the nation-defining narrative. “Erasing history” is not a fight over remembering facts, it’s a fight over civic identity.
If I’m right about the nature of the erasing history defence, then what’s the right way to address it? One approach is to argue that the historical figure whose statue is in question is not that historically important. If the figure is not that historically important, then public history might be “corrected” by their statue being replaced by a more important figure. So, for example, one might argue that a statue of Macdonald ought to be replaced by one of John Diefenbaker or Pierre Trudeau.
A more interesting approach is to engage the idea of identity directly. By foregrounding a civic identity, removalists could argue that a Macdonald statue be replaced by a statue of a figure who fits within a historical narrative that better defines the civic identity. There are two broad approaches. One is to accept the current civic identity and to choose a figure that supports a meritorious vision of that identity. The other is to choose a figure who supports a different civic identity altogether: maybe someone particular to Victoria, or someone representing the Salish who still have the legal claim to the territory on which Victoria sits.
In practice, a response will probably draw from both approaches. The people deciding on the future of the statue will be inescapably (e.g.) Canadian, but still seeking to create a new identity. The question of which past should be made public history cannot be answered without first answering who the public is.