I blogged a while ago to protest the Law Society’s decision to bury the legacy of our first chief justice, Sir Matthew Bailie Begbie, and more recently about the tide of political correctness that was targeting Sir John A. McDonald. Now that Victoria city council has also been swept up in the craze and toppled Sir John A.’s statue from its perch outside City Hall, I thought it time to re-visit the issue.
I confess that my knee-jerk reaction remains the same. You cannot simply erase the past, and the actions of historical figures such as Sir Matthew and Sir John A. towards First Nations people is only a small part of their overall legacy. Devoid of context, the decisions to remove their statutes seems, quite frankly, just plain silly.
Although both the Law Society and Victoria City Council have ample capacity to make silly decisions, I have to remind myself that these are serious bodies populated by intelligent and thoughtful people, so one ought to take some time to understand the context of the decisions before ridiculing them. they are of course responding to the report of the truth and reconciliation commission, which urged to Canadians to begin a reset of relations with our indigenous people, by becoming aware of the truth of the past, acknowledging the harm that has been inflicted, atoning for the causes of the harm in taking action to change our behavior.
I suppose I can understand how figures such as Sir Matthew and Sir John A. may be viewed negatively by our First Nations and how glorifying them with public statutes could be viewed as hurtful; in much the same way that blacks in the US must react to statutes of Confederate war heroes.
I can even understand the needs for some powerful symbolic gestures, like the toppling of the odd statute to force us to take a fresh look at the past in the context of the harm done to our indigenous people. And, I suppose it will take a bit of discomfort on our part in order to signal that we are indeed starting to”get it” when it comes to the historic abuse of First Nations and ready to take some meaningful steps towards improving the situation.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission process was an extraordinary undertaking, taking some six years to hear testimony and document the sordid history of our residential school system. One cannot read the Commission’s final report without feeling thoroughly ashamed of the treatment of our First Nations by our government for almost 100 years.
The problem I think, is that few have actually read it. Certainly I came late to the party, notwithstanding that while the Commission was active I was employed by a law firm that was making millions from settling residential school claims. The reporting on the work of the Commission was, for the most part, very earnest, very respectful, and and very dull. It was left to bodies like the Law Society of BC and Victoria City Council, to actually read the full report, thoughtfully consider the 94 calls to action which resulted from the report, and contemplate what concrete action they could take towards implementing them. The process was simply too long and too somber to engage the attention of most Canadians, so little wonder that they are now reacting negatively to efforts to implement the report
I’m left with the uneasy feeling that possibly removal of the statutes was the right thing to do, but at the same time with the absolute certainty that the reasons for the removals have been badly communicated to the public. If you’re going to kick to the curb our first Chief Justice and our first Prime Minister you need to be able to explain your reasons why. It isn’t much of a symbolic gesture, if nobody understands the symbolism.
Our public institutions are going to have to get an awful lot better at explaining themselves if they are to have any hope of effectively educating their constituents about the need to take action towards implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Report’s calls to action, otherwise they will continue to be met with derision, when, without context, they topple a father of confederation.