How monuments shape our memory of the past and influence how we move forward
'There's been a real shift in who the heroes are and a real shift in who gets commemorated'
Calls for the removal of a bronze bench statue of Sir John A. Macdonald in Charlottetown have reignited a local discussion on the role of monuments in commemorating people and events — how they shape our perception of the past and influence how we move forward into the future.
The statue, located at the entrance to Victoria Row, was at the centre of a city council meeting earlier this week, where councillors met, in part, to discuss public demands for its removal. That discussion was deferred to a later meeting. Similar calls to action have been made across the country and the U.S. about other statues and monuments following a reignited conversation surrounding cultural racism in Canada.
Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister, is widely recognized as the architect of residential schools, which eventually separated more than 150,000 Indigenous children from their families across Canada. These church-run, government-funded schools were developed to prepare Indigenous children for white society.
The cost of assimilation was devastating, leaving thousands of Indigenous children physically, sexually and emotionally abused. The repercussions left by residential schools are still deeply felt across Canada. The last one was closed in 1996.
"There's no doubt that often there are parts of history that do get missed in our monuments and our statues that we see in the world," said Matthew McRae, acting director of the P.E.I. Museum and Heritage Foundation.
"It's important to remember, because a monument itself isn't history, a monument is an attempt to remember a particular, I guess, part of history and often a part of history in a particular way. And sometimes that history is widely agreed upon by everyone — and sometimes it might be in dispute."
'A real shift'
For his PhD in history at Western University, McRae studied commemoration in Canada, with a focus on veterans of the Louis Riel resistance and how they've been remembered.
"I looked at how soldiers on both sides were commemorated or not commemorated," McRae said.
Since it's very difficult to idealize people, some people have suggested we could focus more on commemorating events and places and other things that don't have that same baggage attached.— Matthew McRae, P.E.I. Museum and Heritage Foundation
"And what you did see of course is, for many years, Canadian soldiers who fought against Louis Riel and the Métis … you saw … they were the ones who got statues, they were the ones who were remembered, who published memoirs."
However, McRae said Canadian society's view of the rebellions and its veterans has shifted over time.
"At the start it was very much, 'We defeated the evil Louis Riel and prevented this … rebellion from taking over the country.' Now, you know, Louis Riel is often seen as another Father of Confederation and the Métis are generally seen as having been unjustly attacked by the Canadian state," he said.
"As a result of that there's been a real shift in who the heroes are and a real shift in who gets commemorated."
McRae said it speaks to how memory and perception shifts over time and highlights how history and the act of commemorating people and events from the past is limited to our viewpoint from the present.
"What often happens is that we'll commemorate a person, with a statue or with a plaque and kind of present them as an ideal. And then someone will say, 'Oh, but they did x or y, which wasn't an ideal,'" McRae said.
"There have been suggestions, since it's very difficult to idealize people, some people have suggested we could focus more on commemorating events and places and other things that don't have that same baggage attached."
'Only tell part of the story'
More often than not, monuments fail to show how complex historical people and moments are, said Omeasoo Wāhpāsiw, an assistant professor of Indigenous history at UPEI and a Cree member of Black, Indigenous, People of Colour United for Strength, Home and Relationships or BIPOC USHR.
Who is the audience and what are the multiple stories that we want to share and how is that affecting people walking by it every day?— Omeasoo
"They only tell part of the story … and they signify only one story that took place at that particular location," she said.
"So they serve to remember things, but also erase other events that might have taken place, particularly Indigenous history."
For Wāhpāsiw, the discussion shouldn't be so much about dismantling monuments and statues but more about offering historical context.
"If we just took John A. Macdonald down and just pretended he never happened then we can't, as they say, learn from our mistakes," she said.
Wāhpāsiw, who is originally from Saskatoon, said it's also important to have monuments in unexpected places. She recalls a statue recognizing murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) located at the entrance of the city's police headquarters.
"Our brains just accept what's sort of around us, so if we put certain things around us that remind us of important things we need to know, including monuments like that MMIWG monument, then those are the things that are on our minds as we go to work, as we go shopping," she said.
Wāhpāsiw also suggested that when individuals, groups or even society as a whole look to commemorate people or events, they need to think about who it's intended for and who benefits from it.
"Who is the audience and what are the multiple stories that we want to share and how is that affecting people walking by it every day?"
Place names tell a story
She also suggested there are alternate ways to commemorate — like place names — that don't necessitate physical structures like statues.
Place names look to restore traditional names, offer further historical context and reflect Indigenous culture in places that have taken on names established by European settlers.
For example in 2016, Manitoba approved 117 Indigenous place names. One of them was the new name, Weenipagamiksaguygun for Lake Winnipeg, the traditional Anishinabe name used by the Poplar River First Nation. And in 2017, Nunavut approved 625 new names in Inuktitut, in the Cape Dorset area.
A recent example on P.E.I. is an initiative led by L'nuey, an Island community organization with a mandate to preserve, protect and implement the rights of the Island's Mi'kmaq people. The project has developed new heritage signage for nine Island communities in a language that may be unfamiliar to many Islanders: Mi'kmaq. The place names were collected over the course of a two-year project in the early 2000s.
"Place names are similar to monuments, in representing and creating the environment that we're living in and how we're understanding and relating to our world," Wāhpāsiw said.
"Using Indigenous place names in Canada not only makes it more Indigenous but more Canadian, because otherwise we're just reflecting a history that doesn't really represent who Canadians are.
"A place name is really how we tell people where we are from."
History, and commemorating it in new and different ways, will continue to be a powerful opportunity to tell human stories and a way to understand the world, said McRae.
"That can be anything from a story about an amazing fossil that tells us all about a time millions of years ago, to a story like The Bog, that talks about a community that we can't physically see anymore," he said.
"You can't see it but you can learn that story."