Royson James: Be careful who gets the honour of a memorial

Good reflections by Royson James on the need for reflection before erecting or removing monuments:

Be slow to tear down; slower to erect.

Heroes and villains are too often aligned — in the same body. So beware the memorials and monuments we construct.

That should be a direct lesson from the mound of past sins now being excavated and tossed on the sculpted images of our once shining heroes.

Once a hero, always a hero — in somebody’s mind. But the conquering coloniser is a miserable picture of pain and suffering to the victims of imperial conquests.

So, rip ‘em down. Tear down that statue. Remove the monument. Behead that statue that causes us so much pain. But be willing to square off against a phalanx of counter-protesters brandishing “Hands off our heritage” placards. America is Exhibit A — raw, extreme, seemingly irreconcilable, attempting to confront the past and a study in how not to get there in the first place.

It doesn’t have to be so, of course. Reasonable human beings can study the lives and contributions of the people our forebears honoured with monuments and memorials and reconsider their place of honour in light of modern norms and practices.

We learn. We grow. We listen to our neighbour. We may have to change our minds.

A tear-down doesn’t have to be a whitewash or a blackout. It can be an opportunity to present an era or person or people in wider context. Still, in real life, on the street, it doesn’t play out that neatly.

Toronto is not a city of statues and monuments. There are a few at Queen’s Park and along University Avenue and on university campuses, but nothing like the affinity found in Europe or the American south.

Maybe it’s because we are so young, compared to ancient cities. Maybe the paucity of public statues serve as a natural inhibitor to erecting new ones. After all, who are you to tower over us when so many before you have not been awarded that honour? Why this hero when we can name another 10 or 20 worthy competitors?

Count me among those who have advocated for more piazzas, grand boulevards, fountains and statues. Maybe we are fortunate not to have a proliferation because it is so difficult to install perfect human beings. Prime Ministers and presidents owned slaves. The British monarchy sponsored slave-ship expeditions. The Anglican Church owned slaves and branded them on the Codrington estate in Barbados.

In the midst of this tangled time stamp, affirming the victims, confronting the ugly truths and moving towards reconciliation and reparations is no easy feat. Denial is the worst option. So is a blanket erasure of evidence of the past.

We could be Richmond, Virginia, where the mother of all statues — the 21-foot high horse and rider General Robert E. Lee, head of the pro-slavery Southern Confederate states in the U.S. civil war — is coming down after years of protest that it is a symbol of white supremacy and racism. Opponents see it as symbol of southern heritage. The work, completed in Paris in 1890 is considered an artistic “masterpiece.” It took 10,000 people to transport the pieces from port to platform. Dismantling it and its granite base that’s almost twice as high as the stature itself, is a feat.

Here, we worry about spray paint on the King Edward VII statue at Queen’s Park.

Here, the city of Vaughan is embarrassed when a citizen pointed out that by changing the name of its August civic holiday in 2013 to Benjamin Vaughan Day, the city was celebrating a man of who not only owned hundreds of slaves in Jamaica but fought against the abolition of slavery. (Educated, Vaughan city council dropped the holiday name this year, returning to Simcoe Day.) There’s no word on the fate of the city’s name itself, cut from the same cloth.

Clearly, we pay scant attention to the names we give our streets. So many streets to name in so many subdivisions. Developers name your street address after their girlfriends. Architects throw in ninny names to satisfy whatever fantasy overcame them. Who’s to know?

Maybe Toronto city planners were a bit more fastidious when they laid out the old city by name. You can’t go wrong with Front or Lakeshore, er Lake Shore, or King, Queen, Princess, John and Jane. Who would suspect Mr. Bathurst or Mrs. Dufferin of having damaging secrets that might render them unfit to adorn our boulevards? Dundas? Harmless.

Oops. Apparently, only as harmless as Ryerson and Macdonald — names and esteemed people now under scrutiny for questionable racial history.

Toronto’s city manager has issued a brief committing to “broadly understand and respond to how systematic racism and discrimination are embedded in city assets, commemorative programs and naming policies.”

Chris Murray says “this might ultimately touch all named city streets, parks and facilities, public monuments, and civic awards and honours, potentially leading to a variety of actions (e.g., renaming streets, removing monuments, revoking awards or reinterpreting any of these).

“Addressing the historical legacy of Dundas Street is one of these steps” necessary in challenging systemic institutionalized racism and build a more inclusive Toronto,” Murray writes.

If these are more than just words — and if city council next month adopts the philosophy and true intent — we are in for a turbulent period that will test our maturity as a city. If the effort doesn’t get messy, it’s a sure sign it isn’t real.

We honour people who touch us and move us to dream and aspire to greatness. When the very visage of our “heroes” evoke the image of “villains” in our neighbour, this clash of vision can only crash at our feet — assuming we are equally invested and rooted and valued.

How we clean up the mess will define our future. It will also remind us: Be slow to tear down; slower to erect.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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