There was considerable public outcry after the Sir John A. MacDonald statue was removed from the front of Victoria’s City Hall in August 2018. (Nicole Crescenzi/News staff)

There was considerable public outcry after the Sir John A. MacDonald statue was removed from the front of Victoria’s City Hall in August 2018. (Nicole Crescenzi/News staff)

T.W. Paterson column: Don’t like history? Ban, burn, bury it!

I leave it to readers to decide for themselves whether some revisions are correct, have gone too far or are even unjust…

The revisionists are on the march and gaining momentum. Almost weekly for the past few years now, there have been increasingly frequent news reports of rejection of what has long been regarded as truth — i.e. history — and of subsequent correction by rebuttal or, in the case of some public icons, removal and banishment.

But, while out of sight, out of mind may satisfy some people it doesn’t change history. It is we who, as individuals, as a culture, as a society must change — when, in fact, the pathways that have brought us to the point of questioning and rejecting our history are to have validity and meaning.

There’s the rub. If we’re going to challenge our collective past we must make it a point to fully inform ourselves of the facts (I know, there are facts and “facts” in this age of increasing disinformation) before condemning our predecessors to the trash bin of incorrectness.

MORE T.W. PATERSON: We owe it to our veterans — no ifs, buts, or maybes

Today, I’m going to share with you just a few of the hundred-odd news clippings I’ve filed over the past two years that deal with what I shall broadly term political correction (as opposed to political correctness). Please note that I’m playing the role of presenter, not necessarily advocating or defending all or even some of the historical fine-tuning that’s underway — just skimming through my inch-thick pile.

I leave it to readers to decide for themselves whether some revisions are correct, have gone too far or are even unjust…

An American country band, Confederate Railroad, has been barred from playing at an Illinois state fair. Their logo shows a steam engine flying the stars and bars of the Confederate flag, symbol of the federation of Southern States which seceded from the Union and precipitated the bloody Civil War over the issue of the right to own slaves.

Said a spokesperson for Gov. J.B. Pritzker: “This administration’s guiding principle is that the state of Illinois will not use state resources to promote symbols of racism. Symbols of hate cannot and will not represent the values of the Land of Lincoln.”

The flag, long popular in modern times with young people and more extreme non-conformers such as hard-core bikers, even in Canada, has been under fire in many American states for some years now.

As has, more lately, General Robert E. Lee, commander-in-chief of the Confederate armies whose statues have been removed from public display. Long accepted by most historians as a man of honour, a gentleman, he also was a slave owner. Ergo: he’s no longer seen as a hero worthy of veneration.

This does beget the question: were by far the majority of Confederates fighting in defence of slavery — or in defence of their home states?

RELATED: Lisa Helps apologizes: More consultation needed in statue removal

Much, much closer to home, of course, we’ve had our own statue toppling in Victoria, that of first prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald by order of a quasi-official committee. For weeks, pages were filled with news articles, letters to the editor and editorials for and against the city’s arbitrary consignment of Sir John to a warehouse. Which is where he remains as debate continues as to what to do with him. In this instance, it’s the sneaky way in which he was dethroned that has generated the most heat.

Everyone knows that Macdonald, among his other achievements, forged Confederation through the building of a transcontinental railway. But he also was instrumental in establishing residential schools with their resultant physical, mental and sexual abuses of First Nations children in the course of robbing them of their cultural identities.

In Eastern Canada, his statues have been daubed with red paint; in Victoria he was cast first in bronze then in (perhaps temporary) storage. The jury — City Council — is still out and Mayor Helps likely is still smarting from harsh public criticism of how she handled the affair.

RELATED: McGill drops Redmen name, citing pain caused to Indigenous students

In June it was announced that a Cape Breton high school has followed McGill University in changing the name of its hockey team, in their case from the Riverview Redmen, after 50 years. Ironically, the name doesn’t refer to First Nations people but was prompted by the team’s red jerseys and their candy cane socks. Not only that but, when coined, the local First Nations community was consulted and didn’t find the name offensive.

But times have changed and after a further year of discussion the name has to go because “it can be offensive… The goal of the school is to ensure that all team names are culturally respectful,” said a spokesperson for the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional Centre for Education.

This is a case where even perception is catalyst for correction.

More recently, it was reported that the City of San Francisco will spend up to $600,000 to paint over a Depression-era mural honouring that nation’s first president, George Washington. In this case, George isn’t the target or the villain, it’s the subject matter of the mural painted by acclaimed artist Victor Arnautoff as part of a New Deal program initiated to mark the highlights of American history and progress. Originally seen as educational and innovative, the mural is now viewed as being “racist and degrading for its depiction of black and Native American people”.

Again, we have our own parallel, the controversial removal of a somewhat similar mural from the Victoria Parliament Buildings because it showed bare breasted Native women and projected a spirit of dominance by Governor James Douglas and fellow Hudson’s Bay Co. fur traders at the time of the founding of Fort Victoria in 1843.

In this case, the mural wasn’t painted over but removed and placed in storage, perhaps never again to see the light of day. A distinct positive of the affair was the fact it wasn’t done secretly but after considerable public input, for and against removal.

Among the many suggestions made at the time, one which, for all its potential educational value, was ignored, was to leave the murals up but to inform viewers of the paintings’ perceived bias with accompanying signage. (A proposal also made, also unsuccessfully, for Sir John A.’s statute and other challenged icons.)

But revisionists don’t always win. The most noteworthy recent example is that of an Ontario township which has stoutly defended the longstanding name of one of its streets’ unhappy connotation with Fascist Germany. In June, the Ontario Divisional Court ruled against interfering with Puslinch council’s refusal to change the name of Swastika Trail, despite intense public controversy. The privately owned road was christened in the 1920s — long before Hitler’s appropriation (and reversal) of an ancient symbol as the logo for his National Socialist party. Although owned by a private corporation the road is used as a public thoroughfare and is home to 54 residents.

The controversy first flared up in 2017; town staff recommended, with many residents’ consent, that the name be rectified, and council concurred. But owner Paul Wyszynski and a majority of a ratepayers’ association which included the homeowners on Swastika Trail, demurred. Council then backed down and voted 4-1 against a name change — which brought the issue before the provincial divisional court and last month’s decision to not interfere.

One Swastika Way resident is particularly bitter, saying that he doesn’t want his name linked with Nazi bigotry and genocide, and that when he presents his health card or driver’s licence he’s routinely asked if he’s a white supremacist or a neo-Nazi.

MORE T.W. PATERSON: We can’t change history, but we can learn from it

But the issue before the divisional court was whether council acted lawfully: “There is no doubt that, to many people in Canada in the 21st century, the swastika is an abhorrent symbol, reminiscent of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis.

“However, the discrete issue raised on this application is whether council for the Township of Puslinch acted lawfully when it voted not to change the name of the road.” In the court’s view, council had, and Swastika Trail it is.

Well, I’ve run out if space and I’ve hardly scratched the subject. I shall return.

Vancouver Island Historian T.W. Paterson writes weekly in the Cowichan Valley Citizen.