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HAT Forum - How do we Judge Historical Figures?

  • The 519 519 Church Street Toronto, ON, M4Y 2C9 Canada (map)

Proposed by Tanya Long

This summer the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario moved to remove Sir John A. Macdonald's name from elementary schools because of his role as the architect of the Indian Act with its policy of assimilation and residential school system. There have been other similar movements:

  • to remove the name and statue of Egerton Ryerson from Ryerson University because of his support and implementation of residential schools.
  • to change the name of the Langevin block, named after Hector Louis Langevin, one of the fathers of Confederation and a minister of cabinet partly responsible for implementing the residential school system.

These instances raise questions about a larger issue, namely how do we judge historical figures.

  • Are the instances above examples of excessive political correctness? For example, is there real historical basis for considering Langevin an “architect” of the residential school system?
  • Do we judge historical figures according to current standards of morality?
  • Do we take into account the times in which they lived?
  • Do we balance their shortcomings against their accomplishments?
  • Are the situations of Sir John A and Robert E Lee equivalent from a moral point of view?
  • Is this the best way to redress the wrongs of history or are there more effective ways? For example, the ETFO could use this as a teaching moment, holding school assemblies, twinning with an indigenous school or using their political clout to fight for more meaningful change.
  • Should we stop commemorating people through building names and statues altogether?
  • Should we build statues to those who have been ignored, e.g. Residential school survivors?
  • Why do we idealize historical figures and not acknowledge their complexity?
  • Are there current “heroes” who might be judged quite differently by later generations?

The Toronto Star published an interesting article, “What should we do with Toronto’s controversial statues,” that speaks to some of these issues. Click HERE to read the article.