Skip to content

Weighing in on the historical legacy debate

Historical legacies are extremely controversial in both Canada and the U.S. these days.

Historical legacies are extremely controversial in both Canada and the U.S. these days. Whether it’s advocates demanding that monuments dedicated to prime ministers and presidents be taken down or wanting to revise how history is taught, the subject of removals and revisions has attracted passionate arguments both for and against it.

Critics demanding revisions and removals argue that monuments and traditional history teachings often haven’t discussed the destructive effects the people and things they commemorate had on different populations. As examples, the critics cite the enslavement of black people from Africa, the catastrophes of wars and residential schools on Indigenous people, and the effect of environmental damage on traditional ways of life.

People who oppose the removal of monuments and have concerns about revising history teachings point out that historical legacies often contain a lot worth commemorating. As examples, they cite struggles against political corruption, the uniting of smaller communities and larger identities, and advocating for individual rights and freedoms.

How can the legacies of men like John A. Macdonald and Thomas Jefferson have so many elements both good and bad to them?

A lot of it stems from the Anglo-American stream of political thought and how it was put into practice. Anglo-American thinkers and politicians came up with lots of great ideas about rights and freedoms over the centuries ... but applied those principles very selectively.

When the American Founding Fathers were writing insightful texts about liberty, they were also enslaving black Africans. When the British Lord Acton wrote about the dangers of tyranny, Britain was colonizing Asia and Africa. In Canada, the Fathers of Confederation brilliantly showed the benefits of different groups coming together, while Canadian governments brutally forced children into residential schools, placed absurdly high “head taxes” on Chinese immigrants and repressed the French outside Quebec.

Anglo-American thinkers came up with all kinds of pseudo-religious and pseudo-scientific nonsense to justify why they wouldn’t extend the rights and freedoms they talked about to people who didn’t speak English or had darker skin than them. They claimed that people with darker skin had the “mark of Cain” and were cursed by God, or were genetically inferior and primitive. French-speaking Catholics were considered blasphemous. (Incidentally, Macdonald was somewhat better than many of his peers, being ready to extend voting rights to some women and Indigenous men, and opposing the repression of the French.)

When the histories of Canada and the U.S. are both so checkered, it’s not hard to see why so many people oppose commemorating them or want other perspectives shown.

But attacking them as entirely bad doesn’t work either. Many of the Anglo-American ideas are genuinely good ones, and for all their sins the leaders who practised them still accomplished many important things.

Maybe a solution to the historical legacy debate lies in showing the influence the Anglo-American political tradition has had on Canada and the U.S., not just in its admirable successes, but its hypocritical failures. These successes and failures both define us, and our historical memory ought to reflect that.

Jared Milne is a St. Albert resident with a passion for Canadian history and politics.