Letter to the Editor: Statue committee terms of reference
Sociology professor Michael Carroll comments on the statue project.
Like a great many people at this university, I was appalled when Laurier’s senior administration announced the Prime Ministers Statue Project in July. Fortunately, people protested and the project is now halted while an advisory committee reconsiders the issue.
Still, while I have respect for the people on that committee, I have to note the committee’s terms of reference seem to take putting up a thicket of statues as the default option, i.e., as something that needs to be shown to be unwise, rather as something that needs to be justified. Further, implicitly, those same terms seem to point to a desired outcome (put up the PM statues, add a few others and stir). All this, plus the fact the committee is asked to report in the Winter term — maybe just before so many people leave campus for the summer? — raises serious issues of credulity in my mind regarding the “reconsideration” claim.
What’s been missing from the debate, I suggest, and is still missing in the committee’s terms of reference, is sustained attention to two critical issues.
First, there is the John A. MacDonald problem. Everyone knows by now the objection to MacDonald has something to do with the fact that he was a racist — but that hardly does justice to the enormity of what he did.
Simply put: as Prime Minister MacDonald very explicitly took advantage of widespread starvation among Aboriginal Peoples in order to enact policies that: one, made that starvation worse and two, leveraged starvation as a way of coercing aboriginal leaders to accept agreements that forced them onto reserves in order to clear the Plains for European settlers and the CPR. Enormous members of people suffered and died as a result.
We can’t erase MacDonald from our history, but should we really be putting up a statue — and let’s not kid ourselves, the main reason to put up a statue is to honor and memorialize — to a person like this?
Second, we have to locate our local controversy in the context of the reevaluation of taken-for-granted memorialization practices currently taking place throughout North America. Driven mainly by a wave of students who’ve brought a fresh perspective to bear on familiar things, what we’ve seen over the past year is the recognition symbols of slavery like the Confederate flag and statues of John C. Calhoun have to be dislodged from the visible prominence they’ve enjoyed in the American South.
We’ve also seen a reconsideration of how we memorialize people generally. A case in point, which seems to me analogous to the case of MacDonald, involves Woodrow Wilson and efforts by students at Princeton to deemphasize his association with that university. Wilson was president of Princeton before he became president of the United States in 1913 — and there seems no doubt he did a great many things now regarded as progressive in both capacities.
Wilson, however, was also a racist — though, like MacDonald, it is not only his “being racist” that is problematic. As summarized in a recent New York Times piece, “Wilson as president rolled back gains blacks had made since Reconstruction, removing black officials from the federal government and overseeing the segregation of rank-and-file workers.” Even by the standards of the time, in other words, Wilson made things worse for black Americans.
As far as I know, no one is calling for Wilson’s erasure from history, but people are asking that Princeton memorials in his honour be reduced. And that seems, well, right, just as putting up a new statue to memorialize and honor someone like MacDonald seems, well, wrong.
In the end, though, one of the things I find most disheartening about this whole episode is my university has a Board of Governors who thought this project, a statue of MacDonald included, was a good idea. I am personally convinced universities are facing financial crises which require us to change our ways of doing business-as-usual. In this context, I would have liked to think that we were led by a board fully in tune with the times on all matters relevant to a university community. Unfortunately, the board’s actions regarding the statue project do not lead me to that conclusion.
Michael Carroll, Professor of Sociology