As a longtime high school history teacher, many friends share their opinions with me regarding what is to be done with “offensive” historic statues and monuments. In the past few years, there has been great clamour over the removal or preservation of statues of John A Macdonald, Edward Cornwallis and Egerton Ryerson, to mention a few. Some argue that offensive events and persons should not be commemorated and thus such monuments should be removed. Others argue that tampering with these structures is an attempt to “erase” history.
For many years, I took my students on an autumn walking tour of Old Montreal. The tour often started at Place d’Armes in front of the Basilique Notre Dame. The square is surrounded by edifices that represent distinct eras and institutions in the history of Quebec. In the middle of the square sits the Maisonneuve statue, paying homage to Montreal’s founder, Paul Chomedy de Maisonneuve. It was unveiled in 1895. Girding two sides of the statue’s base are two bas reliefs portraying Maisonneuve and Adam Dollard des Ormeaux in vicious armed conflict with the Iroquois. These images are disturbing.
How does one explain the brutality portrayed in these images to young people? Should these distressful images that portray such violence towards the First Nations simply be removed? To me the answer to these questions is contingent on what role historic monuments are to play in our contemporary society.
Does the presence of the monument demonstrate a contemporary affinity for the ideas of the person or thing commemorated? If it was recently erected, one could say “yes”. It is reasonable to assume that a monument reflects those who had it placed. If it was placed a century ago, it reflects a value of whomever sought to have it built then, not now. Hence, the offensive Maisonneuve bas reliefs taught something of the malevolence towards First Nations people in 1895 and earlier. My students are not naïve enough to believe that we stopped to see the plaques so they could be inculcated in putrid racism. Conversely, the monument provided a “teaching moment”.
Is the removal of a monument the erasure of history? The role of the statue is not to record history. Other things do that much better – archives, museums, the printed word. Monuments are put in place by specific people with specific interests to try to foster support for those people’s values. Often though, these perspectives and their root ideas are lost in the mists of time and are moribund. The power of these monuments to inspire popular sentiment for good or bad is long gone.
Monuments are what they are – the physical representation of specific groups to tout their specific perspectives at specific times. Removing them will not “erase” history. Neither will removing them remedy historic evils. A dispassionate analysis of history, however, will provide greater insight into the evils, triumphs and attitudes of the past. Monuments, offensive and otherwise, provide narrow peep-holes into this fabric and nothing more.
Jeff Itcush is a High School Teacher and former President of the Federation of Teachers of Jewish Schools