A eulogy for the Laurier statue project
When Max Blouw first announced the prime minister statue project at Wilfrid Laurier University, I was unequivocally and unapologetically supportive of the idea. As a hardcore political science nerd and someone who thinks this campus needs a little more prestige, this idea was perfect.
But as we all know, this was not the opinion of many students. Soon after the announcement, students and teachers started protesting the statues on social media and in Senate.
Much of the criticism was focused on Sir John A. Macdonald, whose statue was located in the Quad for the last eight months. From legitimate criticisms of Macdonald’s policies towards indigenous Canadians to comparing our first prime minister to Adolf Hitler, I developed complicated feelings towards the protestors’ historical arguments.
As an obsessive web surfer, I learned years ago that John A. Macdonald’s government extended the vote to indigenous people in his last term, only for it to be taken away by none other than our namesake Wilfrid Laurier.
Any look at the historical record would put Macdonald far above Laurier on the list of prime ministers ranked by their treatment of indigenous people.
While I didn’t find their historical arguments persuasive, there was one argument that I did find persuasive: the human argument.
While I find it dubious to claim that putting up statues of prime ministers at Wilfrid Laurier University is racist when we are named after one of our country’s most racist prime minsters, the idea that indigenous students may find those statues discomforting or triggering resonated with me and I stopped actively supporting the project.
As we all know, the statues were defeated and I honestly thought I had heard the last about prime ministerial controversies at Laurier.
But then I took a gander through The Cord archives for work and found something interesting. On January 11, 1973, one of the four headlines of that week’s Cord Weekly read, “’Wilfrid Laurier … trite and facile’ Students Protest Name Change.”
What many Laurier students often forget is that we were not always named after the seventh prime minister of Canada.
In 1911, this school was founded as the Evangelical Lutheran Seminary of Canada.
In 1925, it was renamed to be the Waterloo College of the Arts and then in 1960 it took on our current acronym, WLU for Waterloo Lutheran University.
In the late 60s, the university started petitioning the government to be recognized and funded as a public institution, and in 1972 the deal was done except for one thing — the name.
The provincial government would not accredit an institution with a nominal affiliation to a church.
So on September 28, 1972, a list of 94 proposed names was published in The Cord for a straw poll and a week later on October 5 the results were in.
The top choice was Wilfrid Laurier University, second was University of Ontario at Waterloo and third was a write-in candidate — Louis Riel University.
In the January 11 article, the protest against naming the school after ol’ Wilf was described thusly.
“Firstly, there is the problem of naming the University [sic] after a politician […] In this regard, we might argue that while Macdonald had obvious national stature and that while [William Lyon] Mackenzie King has some peripheral attachment locally, Wilfrid Laurier has at best a questionable reputation, both nationally and locally. He has absolutely no connection whatsoever with this institution. Furthermore, his record in the field of education has been of the most controversial variety.”
It seems things keep repeating here at our fair school. Not only was there a prime ministerial controversy in 1973, but enough students were invested in indigenous issues that one of the top three student-supported options for the new name was Louis Riel.
I believe the statues could have allowed for historical discourse to increase at this university, and while they will never serve that function, I still want us to be able to talk about history at this school.
So I challenge the students and staff who questioned the historical and ethical issues of the Laurier statue project to keep going.
If you honestly believed what you were saying, then make that next petition to change the name of the school and I will gladly sign it — I kind of like the ring of Louis Riel University.
Wilfrid Laurier revoked the franchise from indigenous peoples after they had already voted in their first Canadian election. Wilfrid Laurier was prime minister for three major revisions to the Indian Act, including one that allowed the government to forcibly remove indigenous people from their land if it was deemed to be in the national interest. Wilfrid Laurier failed other linguistic and cultural minorities during his tenure including raising the Chinese head tax and allowing majority English speakers to dominate the Manitoba education system. To Laurier, Canada would “forever have remained barren and unproductive,” with indigenous governance, “but under civilised rule would afford homes and happiness to teeming millions.”
Let’s have a conversation about history, because even without the new statues, I haven’t been able to walk past Wilf in the quad or our lovely campus pub without thinking of the moral hypocrisy of repudiating John A. while leaving Wilf unscathed.