Sunday, November 1, 2015

On Those Statues Again

the first statue
There are dueling petitions out to continue and to stop statues of all 22 prime ministers being planted on the grounds of Wilfrid Laurier University, my old school that I loved all to bits. I wrote about this statue project on its inception two years ago. The statues were originally to be set up at Victoria Park, but a survey of our citizens showed 79% rejected the idea. This debate has made news at The Star, The National Post, and The Globe and Mail, where one professor noted,
"Parliament wants to encourage the participation of diverse groups for the 150th celebrations. No one here was asked what they wanted,” said Nelson Joannette, a history professor at the university. . . . "Imagine any other marginalized group walking around campus and seeing those 22 monuments celebrating great white leaders. What kind of message does that communicate? It flies in the face of what contemporary universities are about." 
I talked to my grade 10 students about this issue. They were in full support of the project, but their arguments are telling. They more vocal respondents fell along two lines:

1. "If it's free, then it's good. If someone wants to give you something for free, you'd be crazy not to take it."

The fact that it's privately funded takes away some of the concern of taxpayers, but it raises a different issue. Should wealthy benefactors be allowed to dictate the art that permanently represents our city? As Joannette suggests, if we want to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canada, our voices should all be heard with respect to what type of display is warranted. Our voices were heard once in this city, and now the majority that protested the statues is being ignored.

2. "I don't see a problem with the First Nation issue. It was so long ago, who really cares about that anymore?"

Yikes! And, exactly. People don't get the connections and the long strings of history that sit behind the current occupation of land, and they don't understand problems with some of the policies of the past that have left a lasting negative impact on our nation. Missing and Murdered Indigenous  Women and the disproportional number of Indigenous people in jails are just skimming the surface of the number of problems created by colonization.

I recognize that we have to understand people's lives within a historical context, much as I praise some of Plato's work even though he was cool with slavery. We can't attack their entire body of work because of one piece. But some PMs don't have much of a piece to praise, certainly not compared to other Canadians focused more on social reform than personal status.

Some American cities have been taking down confederate memorials. It's curious we'd want to put up something that could be seen as glorifying a dark history, just as our neighbours are becoming more enlightened.

And our own Luisa D'Amato tried to explain the problems with the opposition to the statue project:
It will be one of the ways that visitors, students and employees get information, both critical and supportive, about the behaviour and legacy of that prime minister. Perhaps a conversation or two will happen. "We're not trying so much to celebrate as we've tried to document," said one of the proponents of this privately funded project, Jim Rodger.
They want to display the PMs with warts and all to elicit further discussion about our history. The problem with Rodger's argument is that he wants to change the meaning of erecting a statue, but we can't arbitrarily change the symbolic vernacular of a culture. We don't look at statues and think, "This group of people obviously wanted to discuss this person further." Culturally, we understand statues to be a commemoration. We can't just change that definition as it suits us.

We should celebrate people who have sacrificed and fought in order to help our nation flourish. Terry Fox, the Famous Five, and Shannen Koostachin are good examples. Being a politician that gets to the top through trickery, dumb luck, or honourable means shouldn't be enough to warrant a bronze legacy. Some politicians fight for the top position for power and prestige, not necessarily to make Canada a better nation. Title alone doesn't make one laudable.

If the statues are about learning about history, then a smaller version of the statues could sit in a display travelling through museums and galleries across Canada. As a temporary display, people will come to see the statues when they're near where they can remark on the trajectory through one PM to another and look for the hidden iconography of the pieces. Maybe they can end up housed in the foyer of Kitchener's The Museum. In a museum, they are clearly an educational tool. As public art, they are celebrations of former Canadians. There's no getting around that.

D'Amato closes with these words: "When people at a university start instantly dismissing something because it makes them uncomfortable, that makes me uncomfortable."

Professors openly discussing and debating an issue in the news is not the same as "instantly dismissing" them. They're presenting their views for larger consideration, and the debate will continue.

But what's really interesting to me about this issue, is how passionately I feel about it. Beyond all the rational discourse, it should be noted that I am shaking with rage at the very idea that a statue commemorating Stephen Harper could go up in MY city. After all he has done to destroy what made Canada great, if he is to be celebrated here, then I WILL MOVE!

Just sayin'.

ETA this on Cornwallis statue in Halifax.


The Mound of Sound said...

I'd go for a bronze of John A. veering slightly backward, visibly off-balance, with a bottle in his outstretched hand. Mulroney with a mittful of cash-stuffed envelopes. MacKenzie King gazing into a crystal ball. Harper kicking a chair. Chretien administering the Shawinigan Handshake. The truly colourless prime ministers could be sculpted out of lifeless, white marble. The possibilities are endless if this was done with a touch of levity.

Marie Snyder said...

The group proposing the idea suggest that's the intent, but it's not clearly shown in the John A. MacDonald statue with two chairs, I'm assuming, for uniting French and English. (I can't actually find a thorough explanation.) Rodgers said he hoped unveiling the first one would ease concerns with the project, and it might have if it was as you envisioned him, but I think there's still a pretty heavy anti-statue component in the city. I'm not sure it matters, though. And that bothers me too.

Marie Snyder said...

Not Harper in a closet? Or Harper with his back to everyone else? Some suggest a third chair at MacDonald's back would help recall the Indigenous he turned his back on (to put it mildly). As it stands, he looks like a dignified man accommodating two different views.

The Mound of Sound said...

By the way, Marie, where do you find an adequate supply of pigeons for that many heads?