Education and democracy can help tackle monuments that recall the racist past
Last August, a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, was toppled in downtown Montreal by a group of activists following a protest march. âPeople were tired of waiting for him to be kidnapped,â one protester said. “In Canada, racism can be polite and secretive and this statue was a symbol for the people who still have the Macdonald way of thinking. The statue was an open wound. “
Besides the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 has also been deeply marked by street protests – some of which have led to vandalism – including protests against controversial monuments that represent a divided past legacy and painful memories.
The phenomenon has become global. Across the world, various activist groups have taken matters into their own hands, targeting particular public statues representing American Confederate Figures, Canadian political leaders and British Colonials.
“Few monuments in the United States or around the world seem immune to close scrutiny yet“, Notes journalist Phillip Morris.
Recent public interest in memorials is emerging just as long-established Western traditions are crumbling and people are looking for new representations of the past.
For the German historian JÃ¶rn RÃ¼sen, history offers a moral and cultural compass to guide people’s lives by combining a vision of the past, present and expected future. Surveys such as Canadians and their past reveal that history continues to play an important role in giving citizens a sense of direction for their rapidly changing world.
However, for some, the statues of political and military personalities no longer offer significant references and cultural landmarks.
“I think the continued vandalism of this type of statues is an important representation of the continued engagement in this story”, Omeasoo WÄhpÄsiw said in an interview with CBC in October.
Another reason for this heightened sense of historical awareness is the empowerment of previously marginalized groups. The rights revolution of the last half-century, as argued by Michael Ignatieff, is the political and social history of the struggle of all human groups to be included. For the first time in history, we are “trying to make democracy work on conditions of full inclusion”.
This rights revolution has a cost: it makes society more difficult to control, more contentious. For historian Jack Granatstein, he literally “killed canadian historyBecause the recognition of these rights has made us more individualistic, fragmented and aware of our differences.
For others, however, killing Canadian history has helped “take the existence of racism seriously and ask questions about their roles in shaping institutions and experiences, including those of dominant groups. “
Dealing with controversial monuments is not a simple matter of taking them apart. This is a serious and complex question because of the the passionate public opinions and the multiple contexts in which these debates take place.
Unfortunately, current debates are based on narrow political agendas that escape democratic engagement, community building and historical complexity. Canada’s multicultural past is deeply rooted, intertwined and multifaceted, and must be analyzed and recognized as such.
As a specialist in the teaching of history, I believe that every citizen, from children to adults (including political leaders), would benefit from evolving towards more sophisticated forms of historical consciousness which encourage research, critical deliberation. , historical empathy and different perspectives.
People apply – often unconsciously – different schemes for creating meaning when it comes to monuments. Some are concerned about how to preserve monuments to uphold certain traditions.
Others see such controversial monuments as anachronistic representations from another era that do not fit well with our own modern times. Their removal is considered necessary to justify current moral values.
These visions of the past – and the present – seem incompatible because they offer radically different answers to questions of history and identity. Trying to sort the good from the bad is unlikely to work, as each side holds different truths.
So what are the alternatives?
There is no simple answer because it all depends on the people and the context. Viable solutions for dealing with controversial monuments are most likely to emerge from what the political theorist Benjamin barber called “democratic education”. It is a deliberative learning process where people participate in democratic communities, think critically and deliberately in a pluralistic world, and exercise empathy to understand their fellow citizens.
A prerequisite for this deliberation is the realization of one’s own sense of historical consciousness. As long as people are unable to understand the views and intentions of others, they are unlikely to engage in informed dialogue.
Self-awareness and structural change in people’s thinking is not intuitive; they are found in education.
Through democratic education, it is possible to consider shared commemorative projects. We can then develop guidelines for the preservation and design of public monuments better suited to contemporary life.
A solution recently suggested by the Standing Committee on Public Art in Montreal recommends a âmulti-layered practiceâ that could âadd new layers of meaning, new projects and not remove themâ. Keeping monuments does not necessarily mean accepting the original representation.
Monuments are public sites of memory. They play important historical, commemorative and artistic functions. They belong to us, the citizens. Thus, it is important to use democratic education to develop an open approach to an inclusive understanding of the past.