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Dignitaries and their dogs: who is that glowering down on us from statues and street signs?

Do those old colonial figures still need our reverence? Or is it time for them to fall? Checkup producer Anna-Liza Kozma shares her take.
Students march past Oxford University's Oriel College and the statue of Cecil Rhodes that they are campaigning to be removed from the building. The demonstrators are calling for statues of colonial era figures including Cecil Rhodes and Queen Victoria to removed from university campuses. Cecil Rhodes was a British businessman and politician in South Africa, who served as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896. (Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

The balancing rocks of the Matopo Hills in southern Zimbabwe are a long way from Vancouver's slick streets. This week though I've been thinking a lot about those granite hills and particularly about the controversial colonial who is memorialised there.

It all started when I read about Vancouver council's unanimous vote to make 150 of its street names and monuments more representative of those who have contributed to the city's history, including Indigenous people, immigrant communities and women.

The 150+ Place Naming Project is part of the sesquicentennial celebrations and involves adding Indigenous names to existing signage, as well as renaming alleyways, plazas and maybe the odd building. The idea of Councillor Andrea Reimer's motion is "to recognize shared histories and support deeper historical understanding."

It's been a long time coming. Last year the city renamed Shanghai Alley to honour Lilian To, a longtime advocate for immigrant rights and multiculturalism, who died in 2005. Lilian To Way is the first street in the Vancouver to be named after a Chinese-Canadian despite over a hundred years of immigrant contributions to the city.

Councillor Reimer told Checkup that several people have approached her about renaming buildings and streets commemorating contentious historical figures. One such is Trutch Street, in Vancouver's Kitsilano district, named for  B.C.'s first lieutenant-governor, known for his hard-line views towards the province's Indigenous people. These street signs were the subject of a campaign five years ago, with protesters adding large white stickers proclaiming "Joseph Trutch was a racist bigot."

Another figure, Councillor Reimer said was attracting some unfavourable reviews is British Columbia's first Chief Justice, Sir Matthew Begbie, for whom a Vancouver elementary school is named.

An exterior view of Cecil John Rhodes Primary School in Gweru, Zimbabwe. The author attended the school when the area was known as Gwelo, Rhodesia. (Google Maps)
All this got me thinking about my own primary school in Gweru, Zimbabwe — although when I attended the school it was called Gwelo, Rhodesia — which rejoiced in the memory of that uber-colonial Cecil John Rhodes.

C.J.R. School, as it is called for short, still stands today. Curiously the black African staff now running the school and the parents seeing their kids off in the same uniform that I once wore, regard the school's old colonial name as signalling a good English-style education and are reluctant to see it changed.

History is dynamic. What a name means for one generation washes up as something different for another.

These public debates are still fairly new to Canada. It's only this year that Calgary's Langevin Bridge, named for a Father of Confederation who voiced strong support for what became the residential school system, was renamed Reconciliation Bridge. This was swiftly followed by a push to rename the historic Langevin Block which houses the Prime Minister's office, a debate which still continues

One of the more bizarre historic name stories must belong to three Georgian Bay townships located in what was once the homeland of the Huron. Tiny and Tay townships were named after the pet dogs belonging to Lady Sarah Maitland, wife of a Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. The neighbouring township of Flos, also named for one the pets, is now called Springwater Township.

Canada is of course also home to many people from regimes where the re-naming of state assets is not a novelty — the former Soviet Union, China and Pol Pot's Year Zero in Cambodia being among the most obvious. I've also experienced first hand the confusion of travelling in post-Ceaușescu Romania, trying to find my family's ancestral town in a country where Hungarian place names had been entirely erased and replaced.

And re-naming alone rarely suffices. As all those regimes show, along with addressing street signage there is always the problem of what to do with unwanted monuments to now despised historical figures.
A statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes, with its nose vandalized in the Table Mountain National Park near the city of Cape Town, South Africa. The bronze bust of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes lost its nose to vandals who severed it with a power tool at a South African mountain slope overlooking Cape Town . (The Associated Press/Schalk van Zuydam)

Which bring me back to Cecil Rhodes. At Oxford University last year, students mounted a vigorous Rhodes Must Fall campaign in an attempt to remove a memorial statue of the colonial leader and founder of the prestigious eponymous scholarships, which glowers down into the high street from high up on Oriel College's medieval walls.

The pull down Rhodes movement lost that battle but Times journalist and former MP, Matthew Parris, once himself a Rhodesian school boy, came up with a clever, if rather expensive solution.

Let Cecil stand, Parris argued, and install a new monument looking him squarely in the eye: a statue of the great Matabele King, Lobengula, a man famed equally for his goodness and bitter regret for dealing with the nefarious mining magnate. And for good measure when the current ruler of those golden lands, the despotic Robert Mugabe, eventually dies, Parris proposes he should be buried alongside Rhodes actual remains, under a granite memorial atop the Matopo Hills.

Here's Parris' reasoning:

"All three did terrible things. All three did great things. All three changed history. All three are among the architects of modern Africa north of the Limpopo. All three were prisoners of their era and circumstances, as we all are. Yet all three transcended their time to some degree. Their spirits will always walk the African bush.

Do we have to judge all the time? Could we not just acknowledge?"

There is something immensely satisfying about the idea of acknowledging the messiness of history. About suspending our judgement long enough to erect multiple monuments so that long ago foes can glower across a busy street. And perhaps once in a while we will look up, pause and remember.

After all, isn't that what history is supposed to be about?

Listen to the full Cross Country Checkup show from April 2, 2017 in which this question was discussed, as well as our larger theme: Should Canada change the names of streets and monuments that honour controversial figures?

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