October 21, 2020

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Proactive monuments strategy a wise move

Editorial

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/2/2019 (627 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It is often said that if you wait for a problem to arise before you develop a solution, you’re already too late. Fortunately for Winnipeggers, that doesn’t seem to be the case when it comes to potentially offensive monuments, statues and plaques.

This week, Mayor Brian Bowman announced the creation of Welcoming Winnipeg, a strategy to reconsider the appropriateness of historical markers and work toward ensuring that, if they continue to be displayed, they are put in their proper context. The strategy is primarily designed to examine commemorative monuments and names associated with public officials who oppressed Canada’s Indigenous Peoples, and come up with the most appropriate responses.

Mr. Bowman offered that this initiative is likely not a priority for a majority of Winnipeggers. He is not wrong about that.

The Wolseley neighbourhood is named after Garnet Joseph Wolseley, commander of the force that ended the 1870 Red River Rebellion by Louis Riel. (Ken Gigliotti / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The Wolseley neighbourhood is named after Garnet Joseph Wolseley, commander of the force that ended the 1870 Red River Rebellion by Louis Riel. (Ken Gigliotti / Winnipeg Free Press files)

You can almost hear the quiet chorus of citizens who would prefer the mayor deal with top-of-mind issues such as property taxes and infrastructure. However, for better or worse, this is an issue of concern to local governments across this country, and waiting until emotions are inflamed over a particular historical marker is a bad strategy indeed.

Canada has not suffered the same turmoil over historical markers that has erupted in parts of the United States. The problem has been particularly acute in southern states that continue to have a cultural affinity with Confederate images, symbols and historical figures that serve as icons for white nationalists.

Clashes over statues, flags and other monuments in these states have been immediate and severe. In some cases, local or state governments that have decided to remove a historical marker have been subjected to threats and physical violence. Even when lawmakers have held fast in the wake of their decisions, resentment and disharmony remain.

Canada has, for the most part, avoided much of the emotion and violence. But there have been flashpoints.

Last summer, the City of Victoria removed a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, because of his history of oppression of Indigenous people. Similar fates have befallen other commemorative places and things, many of them in British Columbia, where statues have been removed and the names of prominent historical figures have been stripped from buildings, streets and awards.

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman knows his Welcoming Winnipeg initiative is likely not a priority for a majority of citizens. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman knows his Welcoming Winnipeg initiative is likely not a priority for a majority of citizens. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

What has been missing in most of these instances was a process outlining consistent criteria for such decisions. Most involved local governments or other institutions receiving complaints, then dealing with them on a case-by-case basis. That is not really fair to either side in an emotional debate over the context of a historical figure.

Mr. Bowman’s suggestion that this city get in front of the issue is sound and fair, and does not presume any particular solution for any particular historical marker or designation.

Rather, the process the mayor has described may lead to the country’s first comprehensive policy on not only when to remove references to historical figures, but also how to retain the memory of those figures for historical purposes. It may no longer be appropriate to display statues celebrating the accomplishments of Sir John A. Macdonald, but surely we want future generations to learn about all that he did while in office. This should never be about expunging the memory of any historical figures.

Mr. Bowman’s proposal will no doubt be viewed by many as premature or even unnecessary. But waiting until the lines have been drawn and the battle has ensued does not create the conditions for fair and just decision-making.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

History

Updated on Saturday, February 2, 2019 at 9:29 AM CST: Corrects info about Wolseley in cutline.

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