Erasing history: We cannot judge our ancestors by the mores of today

Jerry Storie

A Task Force created by the city of Halifax to study the issue of commemorative statues, sparked by debate about the contributions of Edward Cornwallis 250 years ago, has filed its report. The report begins by noting that community values change over time. They noted that, “There is an important difference between history and commemoration…[and]…there are occasions when older forms of commemoration no longer fit with the ethical standards of today”.

We are in the middle of an interesting debate about what history actually looks like. Over the past few decades, the notion of the unquestioned integrity and wisdom of individuals we have chosen to honour has come under closer scrutiny. People once revered are having their full character examined and their actions parsed for flaws based on our current worldview. The latest victim (??) of this reassessment is Edward Cornwallis, a British officer, who was appointed governor of Nova Scotia in 1749.

The report notes that the values underlying Cornwallis actions were probably consistent with the values of many of his peers and in line with the thinking of the British aristocracy and the mandarins of the British Empire. The people of the world that existed in 1750 believed things that we no longer believe to be true in the twenty-first century; they had values that no longer seem relevant or appropriate in 2020. Cornwallis’ view of the Mi’Kmaq’s place in the new world, or his views on mental illness or the cause of illness would probably seem bizarre to anyone conversing with him today. The difficulty is that cultural mores, beliefs, knowledge and practices change. They are not static. What people in a given society believed as little as 50 years ago may seem archaic or barbaric today. 

Voices arguing for the elimination of commemorative statues or community recognition of people who were once recognized by our ancestors as having contributed something of value to the community, as it existed then, seem far too certain of their own rectitude. A world view or set of beliefs that seem antiquated or unacceptable today must be understood in the context of the moment. The views held by Cornwallis may be seen as racist or inhumane if we judge them by today’s sensibilities and understandings, but they don’t seem particularly out of step with the political and religious views of the era. Slavery was an accepted practice in many nations at that time and some religious orders were burning people at the stake for heresy. It seems likely that many of those being commemorated, including Cornwallis, had the tacit support of friends, colleagues and those within the political and military chain of command. The vilification of leaders’ thinking at a given time is not logical or fair without considering the full social context of the time. Understanding history requires consideration of context. 

How far are we prepared to go to exercise our sense of outrage? Nellie McClung, a genuine titan in the battle for women’s rights was also, at one time, a supporter of the eugenics movement. Should we judge McClung just as harshly on her beliefs as Cornwalis’ thinking 250 years ago? When the discussion began about whether McClung should be honoured at the Manitoba legislature, a Winnipeg human rights lawyer noted that she supported eugenics. McClung is quoted as saying “[…] to bring children into the world, suffering from the handicaps caused by ignorance, poverty, or criminality of the parents, is an appalling crime against the innocent and hopeless, and yet one about which practically nothing is said.” The lawyer went on to say the 1928 Sexual Sterilization Act in Alberta, supported by McClung, “… was the scientific basis of racism.“ Alberta was one of two Canadian provinces and thirty-two US states that passed laws supporting sterilization. Is McClung’s support for the sterilization of the feeble minded, a view she held 100 years ago, enough to justify tearing down her statue and besmirching her reputation? 

The person voted the greatest Canadian in a 2004 CBC show, Tommy Douglas, supported the eugenics movement. His Master of Arts thesis, written in 1933, was entitled “The Problems of the Subnormal Family”. One of his recommendations was the sterilization of “mental defectives and those incurably diseased.” 

We know that Tommy Douglas and Nelly McClung were so much more than these two failed, and in retrospect, socially repugnant views. They believed what people around them believed. They were both supporters, at least in an intellectual way, of the eugenics movement that swept the world in the early part of the twentieth century, ending with the Nazi enforcement of such a policy a decade later. We know that McClung and Douglas worked their entire lives to improve the lives of people in other respects, but they held beliefs that are incompatible with our current, and therefore, we seem to believe, inherently and unalterably correct worldview. Are we to take down their statues because of their apparently errant thinking? Are we to forgive them for believing what many around them took for an obvious truth, that such laws would be beneficial to society? 

If this is the road we want to travel, we need to abandon the notion of community recognition, because few peoples’ lives and thinking over a lifetime can stand up to the kind of scrutiny to which we are now subjecting our historical figures. US Presidents like George Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have national libraries built to honour them. How long before the next generation attaches an epitaph to their name and begins to campaign to tear them down because of their namesake’s perceived short-comings. In the future, Bush may be labelled a war-warmonger, Clinton a misogynist, and Barack Obama homophobic because he refused for many years to accept gays and lesbians as full human beings with the right to love whomever they wished.

While Cornwallis was busy enforcing policies that were based on thinking that is clearly racist based on our values today, those policies seemed consistent with the thinking of his time. The solution is not to tear down our history or the flawed humans that represent that part of our history. Our goal should be to expand our historical understanding of events and the people who forged them, and acknowledge that every individual’s thinking is a combination of their own thoughts and the world they live in. We should be expanding our understanding of not just the acts of the hero or the villain, depending on our particular point of view, but the context of their experience and their understanding of the world as it was, not as it is for us. 

We should not be erasing history because our collective understandings have evolved. We should be expanding our history to include the views of those who were victimized by the thinking of an era. Our thinking and societal views will continue to evolve, possibly making fools of us all a century from now.

Jerry Storie is a former Manitoba NDP Cabinet Minister and Educator.