Friday, November 29, 2013

On Celebrating History

I've got a funny story.

A while ago - like months - a colleague asked if I'd do some website or advertising work of some sort for a sesquicentennial event in 2017 crossing Canada and involving high-school history teachers.  I'd have to find a way to get high-schools everywhere involved.  I said, "Sure!"

Then yesterday, as I was drinking my morning tea and scanning facebook as I'm wont to do while I wake up, I heard about this innane project proposing to make sculptures of all 22 of the Prime Ministers of Canada and litter them about our park.  I jumped on it and said to my facebook peeps, "Harper's statue will be toppled too often to fix."

Lenin fell for different reasons.
I got five likes in no time.  In my tiny, tiny world, that's a big win.  Five!!

And, wouldn't you know it, of course, the sculpture project IS the history teacher project!!  And I was all set to go to a city council meeting on Monday to help current and former colleagues sell the idea.  Ha!

In case you missed it, that was the punch line.

So, just to completely burn any bridges that might still be standing, I scribbled a letter to the local paper explaining why it's a problem - well beyond the fact that this is $2 million we're going to spend on some bits of bronze.

Okay - hold the phone - let's talk about that price tag for a minute.  When you see a headline that we're spending millions on some historical art, the first thing that comes to mind (for socialists like me) is, "How many hungry or homeless people could that feed."  But most of the money has already been pledged from businesses who like to sponsor big things like this in part because they can put their name on a plaque in a public place for everyone to see.  It's advertising dollars well spent.

ETA - It's not to say that that advertising is the only reason that people pledge money for the arts, nor that businesses and private individuals don't support poverty initiatives, but that if we don't put statues in the park, we won't suddenly have a lot more money for the poor.

But some of it will also come from the city (i.e. us).  BUT that bit likely ALSO wouldn't go to the hungry because it's been earmarked for the arts or education or heritage or park improvement or something similar.  I've come to hate the term "earmarked" with a passion.  In schools, we get some money earmarked for textbooks regularly, and, even though civics texts go out of date pretty much every year because life keeps moving on, and then it's really much more reasonable to get info on current politics from the interwebs, we still have cash that we can't use for anything else BUT textbooks.  So we end up with books at the back of the room that nobody ever looks at, but we - meaning I - have crappy speakers hooked up to the data projector and no money for new ones.  And my speakers buzz really loudly and suddenly which makes me startle and jump and spill tea all over my marking.

It's nutty.

He's ruining everything!
And to clarify, I actually think bits of art here and there are really important for a city.  Art is an investment of money, not a waste of money.  But it has to be the right art in the right place.  

So, forget about the money -  let's pretend the statues are donated.  A bigger issue than the money is not wanting a freakin' statue of Stephen Harper in my city!  Really.  And my job would have been to promote this across the country, which would entail convincing people everywhere to put his pretty face in their parks.  Yikes.

Bennett-buggy much? 
And there are other Prime Ministers that I'm also not fond of.  The thing is, I think becoming Prime Minister, while quite the accomplishment, shouldn't be something to be remembered for or celebrated in its own right.  We should celebrate what people did as PM, not just that they got there.  A few didn't do squat, and others made things worse - sometimes much worse.  As a group, they are not equally laudable.

So here's what I wrote to the local paper:
While I applaud the idea of commemorating history in a tangible and interactive way, I question the creation of a statue of every Prime Minister who served. 
Some might not be quite statue-worthy, and some weren’t even voted into office by the people. One, it could be argued, has even taken Canada down a few notches on environmental and human development indices. But then we run into the difficulty of deciding which ones should be cast and which just cast aside. 
If this is a project with legs that aspires to be re-created across the country, then instead of honouring a position held by persons of dubious distinction – possibly a magnet for disgruntled vandals even, I suggest we celebrate players who dramatically improved the lives of Canadians. I have in mind the Famous Five that already sit on Parliament Hill and in downtown Calgary, but other contributors like Tommy Douglas, Stephen Lewis, Jane Jacobs, or June Callwood might be equally valued. 
And if a portion of the funding will come from taxpayers, wouldn’t it be a nice homage to democracy for the people to have a means to vote on a final decision?
ETA: Or Shannen Koostachin! See her statue in New Liskeard

Women are Persons! Monument

It'll be interesting to see what happens with this.

ETA - The city ran a survey to actually get a sense of what the citizens of the region think, and it showed 79% strongly opposed to the idea. But I'm not sure it's entirely kiboshed yet.

(Follow up post two years later.)


Unknown said...

"But most of the money has already been pledged from businesses who like to sponsor big things like this in part because they can put their name on a plaque in a public place for everyone to see."

I fully respect your right to not support the project but making statements like this without knowing the facts is unfair to the donors. I happen to be privy to the names of many of the supporters of this project. The vast majority of the money is pledged by individuals in the community not businesses. For the most part these are the same people who are giving millions (yes millions) to support, the homeless, the hungry, the disadvantaged in our community. To suggest they are supporting this project for publicity is an insult to them. I expect many will want their gift to be anonymous as they are not the type of folks who give for "publicity".

Completely up to you whether or not you want to support the project but please don't insult those who have chosen to donate a small portion of what they give back to our community to the project.

Marie Snyder said...

Tim, I'm sorry to have offended. I didn't mean to suggest it's entirely for publicity purposes, but only to establish that the money isn't available otherwise - that it's NOT the case that we should cancel the project because that money could be used for a better cause, which will likely be a common reaction to the Record's headline. Some argue that we should never support the arts by pitting funding against social ills. I'm trying to clarify why that's a problematic reason for stopping the project.

I support the idea of having something in place that's emblematic of our history, but I really question the use of Prime Ministers.

Marie Snyder said...

I edited the offending bits.