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Russell Wangersky: Learning from the past

A statue of Edward Cornwallis sits in his namesake park in downtown Halifax.
A statue of Edward Cornwallis sits in his namesake park in downtown Halifax.

I got into an argument a long time ago about movies. Specifically, about what I’d include in the best movies ever made. My co-worker had a list that included several films made long before we were born.

Mine did not. I argued then, and would still argue now, that, not having lived in the time when those films were made, I lacked the cultural knowledge to fully evaluate or understand them.

My co-worker was furious, maintaining that anyone living in modern time could appreciate quality film, regardless of the cultural information and awareness they might lack. (I still think I was right.)

This is sort of a long-winded approach to finding my way into the current debate about statues — about whether we should remove statues of figures like Edward Cornwallis because, while they may have had a key role in founding parts of this country, they also participated in, condoned and sometimes demanded extreme violence against indigenous people.

Edward Cornwallis was a military general who founded Halifax, and everything from statues to place names commemorate that. But there isn’t any public commemoration for the fact he also placed a bounty on indigenous scalps, and for the capture of women and children — or, for that matter, that he took part in the Highland clearances, burning farms and destroying food stores.

His commemoration is understandably a complex issue.

Statues are a measure of time: when they’re being erected, they are rarely far enough removed from the events they commemorate to allow for the clear eye of history. They also have become focal points for those who argue they often represent a symbol of colonialism or oppression — people who make a strong case for removal of the works.

But if we studiously erase the symbols of what was wrong with our past, don’t we also — except for the extremely short moment in time when we are actually physically removing that statuary — push that wrong under the rug?

If every representation of Cornwallis were to disappear, the most likely result would be that anyone already unfamiliar with his history would simply never learn it.

The learning’s important.

A statue is just a lump of metal or stone that vaguely represents someone. And, at the base of most statues, there’s an all-important plaque that explains, in a nutshell, what the heck you’re looking at. Beyond that, it’s primarily a lump of metal and a landing-station that collects pigeon guano (something that, in itself, is its own kind of editorial statement).

There are options: replace the plaques with more complete and updated information.

Do what others have done: there are very successful treatments of the statues of dictators — like the statue of Stalin that was pulled down in Budapest, leaving only his boots on the plinth, or the treatment of a statue of former Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Strossener, which was crushed and put under a concrete block, with only his face and hands showing.

At the same time, realize we’re not equipped to understand the full feelings of the past, or to understand the decisions made. We are, however, equipped to learn.

I realize many won’t agree with my position — I’ve lost this argument before, and freely admit it’s just my take, a take that lacks direct personal and visceral involvement with the issue. (Let me also point out that my argument doesn’t apply to statues in the segregationist South of the United States, large numbers of which that were deliberately put up during the civil rights movement in as a not-so-passive aggressive attempt at intimidation.)

Leave the statues, clearly label them for all that they represent, and continue to learn.

What is it they say about those who cannot remember the past?


Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 35 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky.

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