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Look back and see…. Nothing

Steve Campbell

What happens if you look back on history, and there’s nothing there? What happens if we have cleansed our history so well, there’s not a wart or a wood tick to be found? The answer is obvious, we can all relax in our sheltered world, in which nothing bad ever happened, and sit in the sun and bathe in the gentle whisps of bleach.

What a beautiful world that would be, other than the noxious smell of bleach. We would be pure and clean, and not remotely affected by the complicated historical figures of our past. We could wash (we could wash) all our sins (all our sins) away (away, Sweet Jesus).

Sorry, tend to disagree. If you want to clean up your world, that’s on you. But history is not something you can throw in your junk bin on the computer, and dump it away with a click.
The thing about history is that it was real. It wasn’t necessarily right, maybe it wasn’t the history you ordered on Amazon, it may not be the great ancestor you found on Ancestry.com who turned out to be a horse thief and philanderer, when you thought he would be Richard the Lion-Heart.
But history is real. It happened. It can’t be messed with. It can’t be updated to suit your sensibilities. It just is.

Somebody famous, who I can’t be bothered to look up, said: “History is written by the victors.” This is very true. I’m a fan of the War of 1812, because it’s the most bizarre war ever fought, due to lack of communication. This is why the Battle of New Orleans, famous in American history, was fought after peace was declared. Because, who knew? If you read the American history of the War, you would simply not believe it was the same war! In some strange twist, the people who lost the war seem to have won the war!
History is a mystical creature. It can change in a heartbeat, based on the ethics and morals of modern historians.

My favorite anecdote on this was an American Western movie in which a black cowboy (I think Denzel Washington), a white cowboy (who cares), another black cowboy (Danny Glover) and their Native partner walk into a bar, saunter up (because only cowboys know how to saunter) and order “Whisky all ‘round.” And the bartender pours four whiskies.
I jumped out of my chair and shouted at the TV: “Never happened! For God’s sake, this wouldn’t happen in 1965, much less in 1865!” Jeez! In 1960 they couldn’t even sit at a Woolworth’s lunch counter together, or use the same ##ing bathroom!
The point of this story is a) historically, we suck as a species and b) we need to learn how badly we messed up, so we can learn to be better. We can’t ever pretend, like the Americans do, that everything has always been peachy, and people of every race, creed, sex and religion were welcome in our friendly Dodge City bar in 1865.

Which brings me to my point. Across North America, everyone wants to tear down statues. Because the people who were ‘statuized’ were flawed. Tsk, tsk. Human, just like the rest of us.
In the States, Confederate statues came under the gun. Let’s just dust Robert E. Lee under the carpet. Convenient? You bet. Decision by the victors? You bet. Something everyone in the North wants to be erased from history? You bet. Something the South is on board with? Not so much.
Americans have never understood that the South and North are different. I’ve driven to New Orleans many times and, believe me, the Mason-Dixon line is very real today. The North and South were, and are, very different cultures. I noticed it on the way down, and really noticed it on the way back up. Relaxed atmosphere quickly turns into industrial cities (“How you doin’ darlin’?” to “Whatcha want?”). You can feel peoples’ stress and tension rise as the compass moves north.
It’s like driving from a place of relaxed comfort, through hell, to the relaxed comfort of home.
Can we put Sir John in a Recycling Bin?
  Now let’s bring this home. Poor Ol’ Sir John A. Brilliant, yes. Did he draw a whole country of varied provinces, totally unwilling to bind together, into a country? Yes. (If you also did this, you can challenge me!) Was he flawed? Did he make mistakes? Of course. He was even involved in a national railroad scandal. And then was re-elected.

Why? Because he was not a single man. He was not a dictator. He had a whole pile of new players – the new provinces – who all had their own problems and own concerns. It was amazing that he even got voting rights for Canadian natives through parliament (later rescinded by Laurier), though his plea to give women the vote, years before its time, failed.
Macdonald’s critics focus on his bad decisions, which also were the bad decisions of his parliament. Residential schools are foremost in this argument, and they are indeed a blight on our history, and a tragedy for our native citizens.
This decision was abhorrent but, as history goes, it was only much later, with our current 2020 sensibilities, that we recognized the consequences of the act. If not for history, we would never have known.

So how about that statue? Different thoughts are circulating. Tear it down, because he was bastard; Add a plaque that reads: “Local Lawyer, Father of Confederation and also a Really Big Bastard.”
Does any of this make any sense? Statues are erected to honour people, like Sir John, who served their country well. We really don’t need an asterisk and footnote that says: (*Also a bastard, check for details in your local library.)

By the way, Sir Thomas Picton – yes, that guy at Waterloo, and namesake to our County Town – was a slave owner, known to beat and abuse his slaves. How far do you go, erasing history to suit your moral compass?
It’s fine to be morally outraged at the conduct of people who have been dead for 100 years or more. But, history being history, what do you really know about the people you choose to vilify?
No-one, and I mean no-one, can stand up to scrutiny of their life decisions, or their political decisions – right now or 100 years later. Anyone with nothing to hide can call CSIS and, oh, yeah, they’re going to find something on you! In fact, they may be looking at you right NOW.

I work with a lot of committees. And some of them spend a lot of their productive time trying to find who is to blame for their failures. I tend to say: “Don’t care who’s to blame. Acknowledge the failure, learn from it, and move on.” A lot of people are facing a statue and beating their brows over past injustices. Pointless. How about you turn about face and put your energy into addressing the ongoing plight of our indigenous people? Standing and pointing with outrage at our past does nothing for them, but helps you feel comfortably indignant, and virtually useless for the job we need to do NOW.

When it comes to the infamous statue, my vote is to stay. Stay right there in front of the library, and not face-down in a ditch on County Road 24. Not in front of the courthouse where no speeding motorist would ever see it.
If there’s a new plaque to be made, I suggest this:
Sir John A. Macdonald
Father of our Country
County Son
Not Perfect, but Pretty Damn Good.

Steve Campbell is editor and publisher of County Magazine, and the author of several books, including The County Handbook: How to Survive in Prince Edward County.

Filed Under: News from Everywhere ElseSteve Campbell

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  1. Henri Garand says:

    So, why fixate on Picton’s statue? If any of the other statues were raised in tribute to Macdonald’s whole career, then they deserve inscriptions that set the record right. Such a plaque on the Picton statue is not compatible with it as art or as a “representation of history,” of a single historical event. It would just transform the statue from an artful curiosity into an ignoble image, an object of disdain. In this case, why not save the detailed message for Canadian history books and classrooms, or perhaps a display in the Picton library?

    Similarly, removal of the statue might temporarily soothe consciences and sensitivities while doing nothing to address ongoing issues. It’s the sort of action Marie Kondo would recommend.

  2. Dennis Fox says:

    I for one would not want to revise any of Mcdonald’s history – just telling it in all its glory (or lack of) would be satisfactory. This issue of wanting statues of supposed wonderful leaders removed is not unique to Canada. Many around the world(US and England) who were hurt and oppressed are now finding their voice. I find it appalling that so many Canadians don’t understand or perhaps don’t want to understand Macdonald’s true history of cruelty towards our aboriginal people. If his history was so wonderful and innocent (as some claim), then why do so many oppose telling it? I believe their motives are becoming obvious – they would rather protect a statue by calling it art and whitewash his history by claiming he was a man of his time , than to admit what the real truth is about Big Mac – he did a lot of harm to Canada’s First Nations People.

  3. Johanna says:

    I think you stated it very well why the statue of McDonald should stay. Totally agree.
    Instead of all the energy going into into discussions on McDonald, I think that all Canadians should be in discussions with our Indigenous leaders to help them now. Some need fresh water as their lakes are polluted, and housings as what they have now are in disrepair. Our indigenous people should not be second class citizens or treated as such. Let’s leave the past to the past and move forward.

  4. Henri Garand says:

    I understand the motivations of those who would revise history, but in this instance the zeal is misdirected. “Holding Court” is simply the wrong statue for this purpose. Its focus on Macdonald’s life is narrow, and it is really just a way of saying that Picton is not a backwater but is connected to Canada’s history.

    Like all sidewalk art, the statue is intended to arouse curiosity and elicit pleasure. A plaque demonizing Macdonald would subvert these effects as well as the aesthetic value of the sculpture. Viewers would feel duped: Expecting a simple explanation for the statue, they would be given a lecture.

    Moreover, when all statues of Macdonald bear similar righteous inscriptions, will that be enough to satisfy his critics? And who then will stop to read the plaques?

  5. Dennis Fox says:

    Thank You – Paul Cole! For those few who believe that Macdonald didn’t know that what he was doing to the Chinese and aboriginal people was wrong is pure nonsense. He became PM in 1867 – the Civil War in the US ended in 1865 – Macdonald certainly knew what that was about and that bigotry and racism was at the root of that war. To suggest that a well educated man like Macdonald didn’t know that taking children away from their mother and father was wrong is nothing more than denial. As I stated previously, he was a white Englishman who felt entitled to do whatever he pleased – it is what the English did to promote the Empire.

    As far as I know, no one has asked for the statue to be destroyed. Some have asked for the statue to be removed from our Main St. – that is up for debate (as it should be). But what should not be up for debate is, regardless of the statue’s final resting place, is that a clear and honest account of Mcdonald’s history as our first PM accompany the statue. No one wants to ignore our history – but we can’t whitewash it either. By telling the truth, we can all look back on John A. and say – yes he wasn’t always right nor always kind – but he was a “FOUNDER” of Confederation and without him Canada likely would not have happened. I think that is the simple truth of the matter and why all the angst is caused by those who want to sweep some of our real history under the rug.

  6. Henri Garand says:

    Why must we continue to interpret the statue in light of Macdonald’s later political career? It’s not a hagiographic image; it’s a snapshot of history, a brief moment when Macdonald lived and practiced law in Picton. Though the statue does depict a man who became Canada’s first Prime Minister, it does not glorify him for any achievements other than self-defense in a court case.

    Reading the statue as a general tribute to Macdonald or as a provocation to those he harmed denies the specific reality of its focus on a minor event in Picton’s history. We should not fall victim to symbolic interpretations when there’s a literal meaning that provides enough context for viewers to appreciate this modest piece of sidewalk art.

  7. Julie Eldridge says:

    Thanks Paul Cole for your thoughtful reply. This article has missed the mark by assuming that we need a statue to remember Mr Macdonald. As though he’s not memorialized all over our country. Taking down his recently-erected statue will not erase history, but it’s a good first step on the road toward reconciling our colonial, racist past with our desire to be a more ethical, welcoming society today and for the future.

  8. Todd says:

    Right on Steve. Right on.

  9. Paul Cole says:

    First off a statue is not history but rather a representation of history. History is not being erased its a statue erected 3 years ago. John Macdonald historical deeds will live on in history books and in Hansard. Father of Confederation ?? there were 36 of them, as well as those 36, Louis Riel could be considered a Father of Confederation we all know what happened to him when he sought to preserve Metis rights and culture in Manitoba John A was having none of that. “Our current 2020 sensibilities” hmmmm beating a Child 150 years ago was acceptable but it was still Child Abuse, are you saying because the word RACISM hadn’t been invented yet it was ok. When the Residential School System was announced in the House of Commons by Public Works Minister Hector Langevin he said this “In order to educate the children properly we must separate them from their families. Some may say that this is hard but if we want to civilize them we must do that.” They knew it was wrong then. That same year in the House of Commons John Macdonald said this “When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with his parents who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write.” Is that’s the representation you want on Main St Picton ? Because as much as he was the Father of Confederation He was also the Father of Systemic Racism. Just stating some facts folks sorry if I have offended you…

  10. Mark says:

    Good for you Steve. And I love the statue inscriptions. Well done.

  11. David & Lynn says:

    Well said Steve….how can we mere mortal citizens make our voice heard BY THE ‘ COMMITTEE ‘?

    You can’t mess with history…..good or bad.

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