By Dr David Laing Dawson
Herein lies the problem I think: No man or woman has ever led a life that later generations, looking back through the prism of history and an evolving set of values, could ever be deemed perfect, or even exemplary.
We know we shouldn’t whitewash history. It is important for us to know thoroughly and honestly the actions and the consequences of actions of our ancestors. (But even here I must pause and think for a moment of the origin and subtle but unintended meaning of the idiom “whitewash”.)
But in judging them, our ancestors (if we must judge them), it is a tad unfair to apply contemporary philosophies, knowledge and values.
The residential schools were a mistake. But at the time Sir John A. was promoting this “solution” to an incredible problem, the notion of sending young kids off to a boarding school was not outrageous. In fact, the wealthy did it all the time. If you told them about the problem of pedophiles being attracted to collections of vulnerable children (whether that be the poor neighbourhood soccer team, an English boarding school, or a residential school) they would have stared in disbelief, and if you posited that there just might be many homosexual pedophiles in any boys-only-club (such as the RC clergy) they would have sent you home to do penance. If you talked to them about the consequences of breaking early attachments, of displacement from language and culture, they would have stared at you with the same bewilderment should you be talking about the double helix or quantum mechanics. In MacDonald’s time children were perceived as small persons requiring moulding and shaping by discipline and rote learning.
Perhaps the solution is to have no statues of individual men or women in our public spaces. Perhaps we should erect monuments to our achievements, not to the poor human being behind the achievement. For in reality, each human achievement comes in its time, and ultimately could be tagged to any number of people.
(Woodward and Shaw created and patented an electric light bulb in Canada. Edison bought that patent 4 years later. An industrial road in Hamilton has been renamed the Nikola Tesla Boulevard. And if none of these individual humans had been born, the credit for the light bulb and our electricity grid might have fallen to others a few years later.)
But it appears to be in our nature to need Gods and heroes, and to then bask in their reflected glory. Can we do without them or are these individual names and statues irreplaceable markers within our historical sense of self? Are they, these individuals, necessary glue for our social cohesion?
We could try doing without these markers. We could ensure our history books tell the full story, warts and all, but only commemorate in bronze and stone our achievements and our follies.