by Martin Regg Cohn
Is there a statute of limitations on statues?
Do personalities of the past deserve amnesties after the fact, forgiving their transgressions while sanitizing their triumphs? Or must our founders be held to account, forcing their followers to admit that historical legacies are subject to latter day judgments?
There are no easy answers, but one more question:
For all the fuss over erasing the images of Egerton Ryerson in Toronto and Edward Cornwallis in Halifax, why do we give a pass to their overlords who issued the overarching orders? All these years later, no one seems to demand that the statues of our former monarchs be toppled and that the crown be abolished.
On the manicured grounds of Queen’s Park, an imposing statute of Queen Victoria, perched on her throne, reigns over the legislative assembly. Flanking it to the north is a commanding image of King Edward VII on horseback.
Why question the legacy of a dead king at Queen’s Park? History records that Edward VII and his horse reached Toronto only after a circuitous journey.
His statue was unveiled in Delhi, commemorating his passing as Emperor of India. Savouring its independence, India dumped the statue on Ontario – home of the United Empire Loyalists – which granted refuge to the king in 1969.
Another statue of Queen Victoria, overlooking the Irish Parliament, was similarly retired to a Dublin warehouse until monarchists in Sydney, Australia, claimed it as their own in 1986. The statue almost made it to London, Ont., but for a lack of funds – and we already had one here.
We play a peculiar game of royal musical thrones: Other decolonized democracies unload unwanted historical baggage and we cheerfully offer sanctuary to their surplus statues of kings and queens.
Why do Canadians cling to the crown, whether in person or in sculpture? It’s worth noting that many of the Indigenous protestors who condemn Ryerson or Cornwallis have little enthusiasm for abolition of the monarchy. Indeed, Prince Charles has at least three ceremonial names granted by Indigenous hosts and he was warmly received on a visit to Iqaluit last month.
The Assembly of First Nations argues there are important fiduciary ties to the crown dating to the Royal Proclamation of 1763. But Indigenous affection for our future king seems at odds with the injustices perpetrated by, or for, his ancestors.
Upon independence, the Irish were less forgiving, faulting Queen Victoria for famine, repression and executions. Politicians objected that this “relic of imperialism should still disgrace the precincts of our parliamentary institution.”
When the Australians later offered to rescue her from storage, Dublin was divided about liberating her, according to declassified cabinet documents noting her place in Irish history. “It is part of our heritage in no less a way than Norman or Viking remains.”
The Irish ultimately evicted the Queen with a crane. Separatist radicals in Quebec dynamited her out of Montreal’s Victoria Square in 1963, not just dethroning but decapitating her.
Quebecers are unsentimental about name changes that keep up with changing times. Montreal’s Dorchester Blvd. was long ago rechristened Boul. RenÈ LÈvesque to honour the popular sovereigntist premier at the expense of the forsaken Lord Dorchester (Westmount still clings to the original Dorchester name within its own largely Anglo borders).
As a foreign correspondent, I became fascinated by hero worship and the cult of personality, manifested in statues or propaganda posters. I visited the mausoleums of Mao Zedong in Beijing, Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, Vietnam, and Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea, to behold their embalmed corpses on public display – evidence of how dead dictators live on.
Along the way I collected archival busts (and have placed a likeness of Mao beside his Taiwanese nemesis, Chiang Kai-shek, alongside Vladimir Lenin). But cults come and go – I watched in amazement as my Chinese Communist friends at university literally crossed out the faces of politicians who were purged from the ruling party after Mao’s death.
I cannot imagine a statue to Hitler standing anywhere in Germany. No surprise that Saddam Hussein monuments were toppled after his defeat in Iraq. Which brings us back to Canada’s complicated history.
As governor of a nascent Nova Scotia, Cornwallis crossed a line when he issued the infamous Scalping Proclamation of 1749 offering a bounty for any Mi’kmaq adult or child. (Three years earlier, Cornwallis had led soldiers pacifying Scotland’s Western Highlands, where “suspected Jacobite families were boarded into homes and burned to death,” according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.) Such ethnic cleansing demands a historical reckoning.
By contrast, the campaign against Ryerson by some students seems misplaced. Historians note his close ties to Indigenous people, his aspirations for education and the lack of any direct link to the Residential Schools calamity that came much later (full disclosure – I have just been named a distinguished visiting professor at the university).
Each statue, like each story, is full of contradictions. We are not alone in revisiting our monuments or revising our history, which cannot be frozen in time. India and Ireland did it, and the U.K. and U.S. are doing it now.
The only certainty is that the victors get to write history. The vanquished try to rewrite it.
And writers keep writing about it – not least the need to one day abolish the monarchy and its legacy.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services