Egerton Ryerson statute (Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.5 Image by PFHLai, (c) 2005) via Wikipedia
Not an interesting statue for a historian
(Creative Commons Image by PFHLai, 2005)
A very interesting statue for a historian (1492 Land Back Lane Twitter Account, June 9 2021).

The National Post has a fever. And the only prescription is more statues.

On June 2nd, sharing the front page with the headline about the discovery of 215 unnamed First Nations children secretly buried at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, the Post screamed “Cancel John A. Macdonald and we might as well cancel all of Canadian history”. Since then there have been almost daily articles, op-eds and readers’ letters all protesting some variation of the claim that we are ‘cancelling Canadian history’ when statues of Canadian worthies like John A Macdonald or Egerton Ryerson are removed from public locations.

Then last Sunday, the Post chose to publish an article first published in the UK’s Daily Telegraph—a newspaper that certainly shares many of the Post’s instincts for hysterical victimhood—under the headline “The woke onslaught is a war on the West itself”. What followed, in an article written by an Oxford University theolgian and an Exeter University Professor of International Relations, was a straightforward defence of colonialism, a demand that the “achievements” of colonialism be separated from the awkward business of slavery, and ended with a claim that “‘woke’ secular theology” is bringing about the collapse of western civilization.

Oh brother.

Here in the 905 too, the belief that we are ‘erasing history’ has immediately come to the forefront opposing moves to make sure that the people we honour – in school names, with statues, with street names – are not honouring people who – whatever their other good deeds, were architects of an attempted genocide; an attempt to extinguish Canada’s native peoples by force.

Just as I was getting ready to publish this article, the Burlington Gazette, Burlington’s most popular “Newspaper on a Website”, published an article titled “Public School Board gets in on the erasing of history“, commenting on Halton District School Board’s decision to rename Ryerson Public School. At least one reader had requested the title be changed soon after it was published, but the response from Pepper Parr, the Gazette’s indefatigable editor, was in the negative. Moreover, the comments on the article, at the time of writing, overwhelmingly agree with the ‘erasing history’ motif.

So are we really cancelling Canadian history? And if so, is the history we are cancelling worth preserving, or just a conglomeration of lies and fables about a Canadian past that simply did not exist in the way we want to believe?


Between 1988 and 2003 the thing I did most was history. In twelve of those years history was my full-time occupation—as an undergraduate, postgraduate and postdoctoral researcher. I studied it, read it, researched it, and wrote about it, and when I wasn’t doing it I was often talking about it to anybody who would listen, willingly or unwillingly.

Then in 2003 I emigrated to Canada, stopped being a historian, and co-founded the publishing company that has been my day-job ever since. But history is still paying the bills, as that company primarily publishes history books for the university market worldwide.

So, there are many areas where I’ll freely admit limited knowledge, but on the subject of history I reckon I can claim a little bit of expertise. I care about history. History matters. Accurate history matters.

Do you want to know something historians never talk about?

Statues.

Don’t talk about them, aren’t interested in them, don’t do class outings to look at them, don’t really care about them. The same goes, but much more so, for the names of schools.

And, yes, I’m sure you can find whole books written just about statues, as you can about all manner of far more obscure objects, but that doesn’t mean statues are an important element in illuminating or communicating our history. They’re not.

In so far as statutes are interesting to historians at all, it is for their artistic merits, if any, and what they tell us about the people who erected them, not what they tell us about the person they commemorate. And, of course, they get interesting for historians whenever people start pulling them down….

For instance, what do all the statues of Queen Victoria dotted around the former British colonies tell us? Nothing about Queen Victoria, that’s for sure. But the presence of her morose majesty in civic squares from, well, Victoria, BC, to Victoria, Newfoundland and Labrador, tells us a lot about nineteenth and early twentieth-century Canadians, or at least the ones who had power, money and influence.

For late nineteenth-century Canadians, the need to emphasize, to a sometimes nauseating degree, civic loyalty to the monarch was a way to display patriotism in a world where Canadian national identity was only just beginning to exist. It voiced approval for Britain and the British Empire, its continued influence in Canadian affairs and its supposed civilizing influence on the lands it colonized. And it demonstrated support for Canada’s ruling elite—all while making a public statement about civic pride, ambition and the presence of sufficient disposable income that the local worthies were able to blow thousands of dollars shipping tons of bronze to Canada.

It was good politics and good business, in other words, to commission one of the virtually mass-produced Victoria statues churned out in England for installation on convenient plinths near the city halls of the Empire.

In Toronto’s case, that plan backfired, in the sort of way that actually might interest historians. The statue of Victoria at Queen’s Park today had to be returned when the public campaign to pay for it failed to raise sufficient funds. Only thirty years later, after Victoria died, did Toronto finally pony up the cash to retrieve the statue from storage.

A historian might infer all manner of things from that failure, which they would try to confirm with other accounts from the time. That’s how real history is done. A hypothesis is tested in as close to a ‘quasi-scientific’ method as can be obtained from a reading of imperfect surviving records. The one thing that would never shed any light on those questions, however, would be the statue itself. Statues are terrible historical sources.

And what of Macdonald and Ryerson? Their statues were raised for similar reasons, to commemorate people who in the public mind were uncomplicated and uncontroversial. The father of Confederation. The founder of Canada’s public school system. What could be less complicated than celebration of Canada’s creation, and the establishment of free education for all? And for decades on end, that was fine.

But here’s the thing:

Those statues were raised because of just how badly most of us understand Canadian history. Because Macdonald and Ryerson, like most people who rose to the heights of the ruling elites in North America in the 1800s, were complicated people, and statues don’t do complexity. They were responsible for acts which have given rise to some of the best things about modern Canada, but, as most of us are only properly understanding now, but the First Nations have always known, they were also guilty of acts that gave rise—directly, and with their approval—to the very worst thing that Canada has done.

That thing was an attempt to extinguish a people, by forced cultural assimilation, by separating children from their parents, by forced sterilization, by a policy of deliberate mistreatment, by undernourishment to the point of starvation, by physical and sexual abuse, and by murder. An attempt, according to the simple definition given by the man who invented the word in 1944, at genocide.

Sound familiar?

Genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation […]. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves […]. [This is done by] the disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.

Raphael Lempkin, Axis rule in occupied Europe : laws of occupation, analysis of government, proposals for redress (1944).

So why do so many people want to claim that many Canadians’ horror at finally comprehending the scale of the genocide carried out among us is an attempt to “cancel” Canadian history, or a “woke” attempt to destroy the nation?

Between 2006 and 2015, John A Macdonald’s most recent biographer, the long-time Toronto Star columnist the late Richard Gwynn, published one of the most readable and entertaining two volume biographies of a 19th century statesman you could hope to come across. (Gwynn’s own summary of key points his biography can be found freely online at Canada’s History.) Macdonald emerges from the pages of Gwynn’s account as a lovable rogue—a politician more in the mould of Jean Chretien than Stephen Harper. A surprisingly liberal Conservative, who argued in parliament in support of votes for women, and initially wanted the North West Mounted Police [NWMP]—the future RCMP—to include indigenous and Métis officers, only to be stymied, according to Gwynn, by the intransigence of Louis Riel. A hard drinker and a wily political opponent, always ready with a dry joke to deflate the pomposity of his opponents, he was also a pragmatist and a realist—always key skills of a successful politician. Yet, according to Gwynn, he was also a visionary who was the key architect of the Canadian nation, and then of defending it through thirty years when it’s survival was far from assured.

This is the history the National Post and Jason Kenney want to protect. Yes Macdonald had his flaws, they imply, but let’s not lose sight of the good things our first prime minister did. More that that, let’s not be distracted from the important things that Macdonald did. As if planning for the extinction of a race was a piffling inconsequentiality.

What, after all, is a little genocide between friends?

See if you can spot the the problem with the following quotation:

NWMP’s mandate [was] not to punish crime but to pre-empt it by giving police officers the mission of getting to know, of befriending, and of earning the trust of both Aboriginals and settlers, treating both impartially, and indeed most often by protecting Native people from the newcomers. The consequence was a Canadian West utterly different from its U.S. equivalent: here, peace, order, and good government; there, vigilante justice and the rule of the gun.

Richard Gwynn, ‘Canada’s Father Figure’, Canada’s History (2015)

Does that seem just a little optimistic to you? Would the descendants of those ‘Aboriginals’ feel they were impartially treated and protected? Were the indigenous children of Kamloops protected so fairly, and impartially, by the people to whom John A Macdonald and his successors entrusted their care? What about the First Nations women who were forcibly sterilized in Alberta and BC? And was the RCMP, dressed in their military-style uniforms designed to ape the British red-coats, and armed with rifles and cutlasses, not night-sticks and handcuffs, truly about enlightened peace-keeping, or about violently suppressing anybody—above all the First Nations and Métis—who stood in the way of Canada’s successful expansion to the Pacific? The more one reads of Gwynn’s account of Macdonald, the more one is forced to accept it is hopelessly naive.

And while Gwynn acknowledged in his summary of Macdonald’s career that he was a complicated man, and accepted the black marks that the execution of Louis Riel, the Chinese Head Tax and the CPR scandal made on his career, the residential schools barely warrant a mention.

And yet the residential schools were a product of a report commissioned by Macdonald in 1879. The Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds was written in just two months by Nicholas Flood Davin, based on the experience of Industrial Schools in the US collected by Flood Davin in a handful of interviews. Within the first few lines of the report, the purpose of the Industrial Schools is made clear:

The industrial school is the principal feature of the policy known as “aggressive civilization.”

Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds, 1879

A few lines later, it was explained why these schools needed to be residential: “the day-school [in the USA] did not work, because the influence of the wigwam was stronger than the influence of the school”. In sixteen short pages, the report goes on to establish the arguments underpinning the residential schools system, the objective of “civilizing” Canada’s indigenous peoples by removing children from parents, making them Christian and teaching them to “take on the colourless monotony of daily toil” in place of the “excitement and charm” of a traditional “wild unsettled life”. It describes at length how the costs could be minimized through economies of scale, and how in time the schools could hope to become self-sufficient.

It is a horrifying read, that reads like a government study into the benefits of concentration camps, with promises of happy, industrious natives working profitable farms that paid for the apparatus of their own extinction.

Through the entire short work runs the self-assured but virulent racism of nineteenth-century Canadian society, which was the foundation stone upon which European colonialism was built. The “red man” was capable of understanding little but the most basic subsistence farming, although some showed more promise. One, Flood Davin amusedly notes, “might have passed for a clever Scotchman”, but this was of course explained as the result of indigenous North Americans interbreeding with Europeans.

These facts of Macdonald’s time as prime minister are not hard to find. They are well known, and yet a sixteen page report commissioned and adopted by his government setting out the rules of cultural genocide has scarcely moved the scale upon which Canada’s first prime minister’s reputation sits. Until now. But as the bodies are discovered, and sheer scale of the atrocities becomes ever more impossible to deny, the National Post and the right care only for ‘saving Canadian history’, while refusing to acknowledge some of Canada’s most shameful and indisputable historical facts. But what they call history was never Canada’s history. It was comfortable self-delusion.


Yet there is one way in which the defenders of Macdonald and Ryerson are right. Focusing on those two men as the responsible parties for the Residential Schools System is in many ways not good history.

And that’s because it was the newly created Dominion of Canada that was the guiltiest party of all. Nothing could be more systemic than the creation of the Residential Schools, and the system was Canada. Singling out Macdonald and Ryerson hides the scale of the culture that created, maintained and nurtured the Residential Schools for a century.

Do you know who this man is? If you, like 99.9% of Canadians, don’t have a clue, then how would removing his statue cancel anything?*

The ideas that gave rise to the Residential Schools were not the preserve of two men. They were truths universally acknowledged by all white people, long before and long after Macdonald and Ryerson. They were uncontroversial facts for the people who elected Macdonald. Likewise they were obvious truths to the people who elected the first Liberal government of Alexander Mackenzie, whose Indian Act codified and cast in stone the treatment of the First Nations as cultures and races scheduled for extinction. Only by becoming Christians and living in the manner of white Europeans could Canada’s indigenous peoples ever hope to be truly human. It was the “White Man’s Burden” to bestow the gift of cultural and, if necessary, actual extinction upon the indolent savages and their worthless, Godless world.

Facts are neutral; they don’t take sides. We know what Canada did over the first century that it existed as an independent nation, because it is written down clearly in ink, and is being found buried under the former yards of the Residential Schools.

Macdonald and Ryerson are hardly being ‘cancelled’ when more people are learning those names than have know them for decades. So don’t talk about cancelling history, when what is happening is an awakening to history. Those feeling so triggered (a word I use because I know it will annoy them) by the sight of falling statues don’t want to preserve history, they want to preserve our ignorance of history.

The ‘blatherskite’ and drunkard who wrote a guide-book for a Canadian genocide

Born Irish and Catholic, Nicholas Flood Davin might have been expected to have some sympathy for those oppressed by colonial powers. Instead, by the time he arrived in Canada in 1872, he had hidden his religion, invented a prestigious education, and become, by fair means and less fair, a lawyer and journalist in London and Belfast.

Nicholas Flood Davin

Like many arrivals in Canada from Britain, his was motivated by a disgrace—being fired as editor of the Belfast Times for “being so drunk as to be unable to write anything for the paper.”

He caught the eye of John A MacDonald through a series of toadying letters, and ran for the Conservatives in Haldimand—the very lands granted to Joseph Brant and the Six Nations only half a century earlier—losing by a small margin in 1878.

His narrow defeat in Haldimand, and another deluge of begging letters to Macdonald, brought Davin a two-month patronage position—a one man trip to the USA to write a report on the Industrial Schools. The subsequent report, which strongly recommended the system be adopted in Canada, was the first step in the Residential Schools program that existed until the 1980s. Davin’s American vacation, which warrants only four cursory lines in Davin’s lengthy entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, doomed generations of future First Nations children to childhoods of misery, maltreatment and death.

This was just the beginning of Davin’s career in politics. The turning point was being sent by Macdonald to create a Conservative newspaper for the west, based in Regina, paid in land bought with CPR funds. Davin took care to hide the apparently obvious—the gift had ‘the character of a bribe’. Yet the paper was failing until Davin had another stroke of luck—the trial of Louis Riel—which turned Canada’s eyes towards Regina. Disguising himself as a priest, Davin managed to gain access to Riel’s cell and obtain Riel’s last interview hours before his execution.

Finally reaching parliament as MP for Assiniboia West, Davin developed a reputation as a ‘blatherskite’, called upon by Macdonald when he wanted to delay a vote with an overlong speech. But his political career was a disappointment to him, and his battle with alcohol, as for so many of Canada’s nineteenth-century leaders, was one he could not win.

The final part of his career saw him arrested wandering ‘half-disrobed’ and drunk in a first-class railway car, and entering into feuds with political rivals who received positions he thought he deserved. His life descended into chaos, and ended in tragedy mixed with farce when he committed suicide in his hotel room in Winnipeg in 1901. The Dictionary of Canadian Biography states: “His melodramatic death was a microcosm of his life: his first revolver refused to fire, and he had to return it to Ashdown’s Hardware and buy a second pistol to accomplish his task.”

Such were the men who built the Residential Schools.


It is undoubtedly difficult for many Canadians to give up our shared mythology of “Canada the Good”. Coming here in 2003 I swallowed the myth too, hook, line and sinker, as a powerful antidote to the endless line of horrors my country of birth—Great Britain—inflicted on the world. I swallowed the myth that in Canada we didn’t treat indigenous people really all that badly, that Canada wasn’t nearly as troubled by theories of white superiority as other places, and not nearly as rapacious in its actions towards the people who lived here before us. Sure, it was bad, but compared to those other guys ….

We need to say goodbye to myths, and accept the facts in all their true horror. Because if Canada is ever to have a true reconciliation with the people who lived here before we usurped them, it must be based on fully understanding and accepting what we did.


*It’s Alexander Mackenzie, first Liberal Prime Minister of Canada, whose government passed the Indian Act.

This article was edited on June 23rd 2021 to correct various typographical errors, and adding Raphael Lempkin’s definition of genocide.

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