Boswell: O’Toole’s anti-cancel-culture campaign is really a defence of commemorative status quo

Good contrast between virtue signalling on historical figures versus having a more meaningful discussion on options, ranging from removal or relocation accompanied by interpretive placques:

Erin O’Toole launched his campaign for the leadership of the federal Conservatives one year ago today — on Jan. 27, 2020 — with a video message in which he positioned himself as a champion of Canadian heritage and an avowed enemy of “cancel culture”.

The video was filmed in a snowy Major’s Hill Park in downtown Ottawa, with the Parliament Buildings and a statue of Rideau Canal builder Lt.-Col. John By providing background scenery.

Shots of O’Toole walking and talking about his campaign against this evocative backdrop were interspersed with file footage of a controversial statue of Sir John A. Macdonald being hauled away from the entrance of Victoria City Hall after demands from B.C. Indigenous leaders in 2018.

“Who’s going to defend our history, our institutions,” O’Toole asks, “against attacks from cancel culture and the radical left?”

Since O’Toole’s campaign launch 12 months ago with that one-minute, 46-second video — leading up to and following his unexpected victory in the Tory leadership contest in August — the Ontario MP has repeatedly cast himself as a courageous cultural warrior (with a military pedigree, as we are constantly reminded) who is not afraid to fight those bent on “erasing our history.”

It’s become part of O’Toole’s personal brand as party leader and it’s now a central message in Conservative recruitment and fundraising strategies.

The party’s website features a “Stop Cancel Culture” pitch for donations and new members — superimposed on a photo of the recently beheaded Montreal statue of Macdonald — that echoes O’Toole’s mantra: “We can’t keep destroying our history.”

It’s time for a reality check — and a reminder that what O’Toole monolithically characterizes as “our history” is better understood in 21st-century Canada as a multitude of competing versions of the past, seen from a variety of ethnocultural, regional and other perspectives, many of which have really only begun to find expression in Canada’s landscape of commemoration.

O’Toole and his party are misusing the term “cancel culture” to stoke anger, attract followers and cash, and generally energize a reactionary campaign that could thwart a long overdue, orderly reassessment of how we commemorate history in Canada’s public spaces and honourary nomenclature.

Yes, unthinking vandals like those who knocked down the Macdonald statue in Montreal last summer, or have spray-painted graffiti on other Macdonald monuments in Kingston and elsewhere in recent years, have unwittingly given oxygen to O’Toole’s campaign.

But that’s just the extreme end of a broad spectrum of reformists who recognize that hundreds of years of embedded racism in Canadian society is quite unsurprisingly reflected in place names and monuments and other landmarks honouring the 18th– and 19th-century elites of imperial Britain and colonial Canada.

Defacers and destroyers of public monuments should be punished for their crimes, and those who may sympathize with such counterproductive attacks should direct their reformist energies to legitimate processes — at city halls, provincial legislatures, universities — to push for constructive changes to public commemoration.

Unfortunately, O’Toole has also condemned these kinds of moderate reform efforts, conflating his criticism of extremist actions with his attacks on thoughtful, informed, consultative, democratic decision-making that has also been occurring and which must be at the heart of rethinking and revitalizing our public memorials.

This is, in fact, the kind of fair and open process that is being undertaken to determine the fate of the Macdonald statue in Victoria.

The statue had been erected just a few metres from the front entrance of Victoria’s municipal headquarters in 1982 after it was gifted to the city by the B.C.-based Sir John A. Macdonald Historical Society.

To B.C. Indigenous leaders, who had to pass the statue every time they attended meetings of a city committee crafting Victoria’s reconciliation strategy, the unavoidable sight of a bronze tribute to the man they hold chiefly responsible for the cultural genocide of their peoples posed a serious obstacle to their participation in that process.

A 2018 decision by city council to remove the monument was followed by further public consultations in March 2020 about its possible relocation. Then the pandemic put the issue on pause. The statue is likely to be relocated and adorned with a history-balancing plaque once the pandemic eases and final consultations can proceed.

A similar multi-stage decision-making effort was made at Queen’s University in Kingston, where there was overwhelming support from students and faculty members — despite some well-argued dissent during an extensive consultation process — to rename John A. Macdonald Hall, the main law building on campus, out of respect for Indigenous law students.

O’Toole’s churlish reaction? “Another victim of cancel culture,” he tweeted when Queen’s announced the decision, just as he has repeatedly lambasted Victoria for what he falsely insists is “erasing history.”

In a similar case with a different outcome, the citizens of Picton, Ont., were consulted about what should happen to a Macdonald statue in the centre of that town before municipal councillors cast their decisive vote in November. The bronze tribute to Macdonald’s early law career will remain in place alongside “respectful and historically accurate messaging” to be displayed on a plaque offering a more balanced perspective on Macdonald’s legacy. Other initiatives will be undertaken to promote “anti-racist attitudes and inclusiveness of marginalized peoples.”

People of good conscience will disagree. Some communities will remove statues or names. Others will choose a different path. But local decisions for local reasons should prevail, once the public has had an informed, reasoned discussion about the challenges involved in both preserving and balancing Canada’s complicated history in our public commemorations.

Why dismiss such moderate measures as “cancel culture”? Because that’s a term that increasingly conjures negative reactions from free-speech advocates and the broader public. It typically describes a mob-like, online ostracizing of an individual that can happen to just about anyone perceived to have publicly uttered some irredeemably wrong-headed, hurtful remark — or to have committed some unforgivable act — that exposed that person’s alleged racism, misogyny, homophobia or transphobia.

If it seems odd that O’Toole and such luminaries of progressive politics as Noam Chomsky and Gloria Steinem are on the same side of a contemporary cultural debate as opponents of “cancel culture,” be reassured they’re really not.

Conservative politicians in both Canada and the U.S. have appropriated the term for their own purposes.

O’Toole has suggested on several occasions that he is aligned with the likes of Chomsky and Steinem, J.K. Rowling, Malcolm Gladwell and the other signatories of an open letter against increased “censoriousness,” “public shaming” and “illiberalism” in society, which was publishedin Harper’s Magazine last July.

They sounded an alarm about preserving space and freedom in public discourse for thoughtful dissent from absolutist stances on various social, cultural and political issues without fear of ostracization, firing and other forms of career cancellation.

Significantly, the signatories emphasized their support for “powerful protests for racial and social justice” and “wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society,” but expressed worry that certain intolerant voices on the left are pushing their “own brand of dogma or coercion — which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting.”

Canada’s Conservative leader (who typically neglects to mention Margaret Atwood and former federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff as Harper’ssignatories) obviously has a much different agenda than those decidedly non-Conservative individuals do — one that has no real relationship to the internet bullying that the letter-writers are campaigning against.

Yet O’Toole enjoys the supposed company of Atwood, Ignatieff et al. The public figure O’Toole wants to save from social media de-platforming — a certain booze-loving Father of Confederation who genuinely deserves great credit for overcoming linguistic, religious and geographic challenges in forging modern Canada — has been dead since 1891.

“When I launched my campaign in January and said I wanted to stand up to cancel culture and the erosion of our history, the media mocked me for that,” O’Toole said in an Aug. 1 interview.  “And now a few weeks ago … J.K. Rowling, Malcolm Gladwell, 150 prominent authors all signed a letter saying we need to fight back against cancel culture.”

What O’Toole is really doing is exploiting the “cancel culture” debate to rally opposition to anyone messing with the reputation of Macdonald and other Conservative luminaries. In effect, he’s shutting down opportunities to have civil discussions about reconsidering how we do commemoration in Canada, ill-advisedly suggesting citizens should rally around one version of “our history,” and to condemn “erasing our history,” even reasonable efforts to update, diversify and (yes, in some cases) deodorize our commemorative landscape.

Does anyone really think 19th-century slave owners who resisted abolition efforts in Britain and Upper Canada — and were relatively minor figures in Canadian history anyway — should be honoured in the names of Eastern Ontario’s Russell Township, Ottawa’s Rideau-Goulbourn municipal ward, or Vaughan Secondary School in Thornhill?

O’Toole’s interventions in the debate over statues, landmarks and placenames have focused primarily on the reputational fate of Macdonald. But his recent, unguarded remarks on 19th-century Residential Schools promoter Egerton Ryerson — in that ill-fated, leaked November video call to Ryerson University’s young Tories, when he said Residential Schools were “meant to try and provide education” to Indigenous children — were in keeping with O’Toole’s broader aim to defend Canada’s pantheon of patriarchs from adversaries whom he sees as “erasing” such figures from the country’s collective memory.

For O’Toole, this is a partisan battle. The Conservative leader wants to make sure Conservative historical figures such as Macdonald and Hector-Louis Langevin — both men key players in the Confederation story but also tarnished as authors of the Residential Schools tragedy and other racist policies of the 19th century — are held no more responsible for the sins of Canadian history than Liberal icons like Wilfrid Laurier and Pierre Trudeau.

The latter is routinely (and gleefully) mentioned by O’Toole as having been prime minister when several residential schools were opened. This was a key theme in a Facebook Live video he recorded last summer in front of the former Langevin Block in Ottawa, where O’Toole took aim at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s June 2017 renaming of the building as the Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council.

“I was the only one who publicly took a stand against him, because I said if we start this trend of eliminating the history to meet his political narrative, where is it going to end?” he said in a June 30 Facebook Live video message.

“You know who opened more residential schools that Hector Langevin? Your father, Justin! … I don’t see the left demanding Trudeau’s airport be renamed in Montreal. Where do they take their attack? To Conservative icons like Langevin, like Sir John A. Macdonald statues.”

Trudeau’s renaming of Langevin Block was made unilaterally — and thus foolishly — without public consultation or transparency. That’s the kind of move, however well-intentioned, that fuels O’Toole’s torqued rhetoric.

And it’s why communities that have thoughtfully, deliberately, honestly examined the darker chapters of Canadian history are providing a good model for reimagining our commemorative landscape — despite the Conservative leader’s campaign of resistance to change.

Randy Boswell is a Carleton University journalism professor and a former Ottawa Citizen and Postmedia News reporter.

Source: O’Toole’s anti-cancel-culture campaign is really a defence of commemorative status quo

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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