Comment: Conversations about the past can be tricky

A commentary by a former college history teacher and public servant.

It is tempting to observe that by the time the proposed conversation on the future of the Sir John A. Macdonald statue takes place in May 2020, the statue will have been incarcerated for the better part of two years.

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On the other hand, perhaps by that time, and as a result of a respectful conversation, a broadly acceptable solution will have emerged. I hope so.

Whether it’s statues of controversial figures or memoirs of our parents, dealing with the past can be a tricky business.

Discussing “the memories of conflict, resentment, blame, self-justification,” Janet Malcolm wrote in The New Yorker last year that “it is wrong, unfair, inexcusable to publish them. ‘Who asked you to tarnish my image with your miserable little hurts?’ the dead person might reasonably ask.”

Malcolm also says this: “Do we ever write about our parents without perpetuating a fraud? … The past is a country that issues no visas. We can only enter it illegally.”

Wow! I’m much more comfortable with the perspective of Lisa Brennan-Jobs, the memoir-writing daughter of Steve Jobs, who remarked: “If you don’t open up the box of mystery that you’ve carried since childhood, it remains a mystery, and you remain wondering.”

To be consistent with this view — although the situations are hardly perfectly analogous — means I should be open to reassessing Macdonald and to finding a new location for his stylish, coat-flowing statue.

At the same time, because the statue is an important cultural artifact, these processes need to be open and inclusive, which they weren’t when the statue was removed, a misstep Mayor Lisa Helps now appears to want to correct.

As Buffy Sainte-Marie has said about seeking to educate rather than to lecture, “You don’t give it to people in an enema.”

Writer and essayist Adam Gopnik has argued that “we need to be charitable about the moral failings of our ancestors. …. Our own unconscious assumptions and cultural habits are doubtless just as impregnated with bias as theirs were. We should be kind to them, as we ask the future to be kind to us. … [F]uture generations might well become as intolerant of cruelty to animals as we are of cruelty to people.”

This approach of kindness and tolerance makes sense to me. It saves us from being silly and feeling compelled to modify the standing of any historical personage who has committed an infraction to present-day eyes.

For example, 13-year old Anne Frank commented in her diary on Oct. 9, 1942, about the “uncivilized places where the Germans are sending” the Jews.

While the Nazis’ murder of the Jews is clearly the issue, Anne’s denigration of Poland and its people is also noteworthy. Her frequent precocious perspicacity was not in evidence on this occasion.

She wasn’t perfect. She was human — as is everyone who receives the attention of history.

We would do well to keep in mind the words of Eme Onuoha, “a first-generation-born Canadian of sub-Saharan African descent” and a former senior official with the federal government. He says it is always “important to temper retrospective righteousness with forward-looking humility.”

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