The Name Debate: An Introduction

Amid the widening debate about the removal of the names and statues of controversial, colonial-era figures from public places, The Canadian Encyclopedia asked three writers to offer their opinions on the subject. Here, Anthony Wilson-Smith, the Encyclopedia's publisher, introduces the debate.


Interpreting History

History, done comprehensively, is the study of events that happen once, but are interpreted many different ways. One side’s victory, after all, is another’s defeat, so the two sides recall the outcome with equivalent joy or frustration. How a person remembers an event depends on their role within it: a soldier in the thick of a battle recalls it in much different ways than the general in command far behind the lines.

Our views also change with time and shifting societal attitudes and priorities. The memorials we erect, and the people and causes we honour, exemplify the ways in which different interpretations of history challenge us. In Canada, the United States and elsewhere, we increasingly witness intense debate as to who and what past events should be honoured. That includes the question of whether new facts or interpretations mean we should tear down memorials already in place.

In Canada, many such debates are rooted in efforts to come to terms with our treatment of Indigenous peoples. That is the case in controversies involving tributes to Edward Cornwallis and Jeffery Amherst in Nova Scotia; Amherst again in Montréal, Sir Hector-Louis Langevin in Ottawa, Egerton Ryerson in Toronto and Joseph Trutch in British Columbia. All of those previously celebrated men are the subject of calls to remove or rename past tributes because of their demonstrable or alleged mistreatment of Indigenous people.

Sir John A. Macdonald
Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister, as depicted on a Canadian bill.

The most notable such debate centres on Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister and a Father of Confederation. A more intense, recent focus on his harmful policies toward Indigenous peoples — particularly on the Prairies — has led to calls to remove his name from public schools and other institutions honouring him.

Three Opinions, and More

Debates are better informed by greater awareness of differing points of view. To that end, we invited three Canadian writers to contribute their thoughts on this topic: Linda ManyGuns, a professor of Native American studies at the University of Lethbridge; Maclean’s magazine staff writer John Geddes; and author and Arctic history specialist Ken McGoogan. We hope you’ll read and consider each of their positions — but not stop there. You can also explore links to related articles and images in The Canadian Encyclopedia that include biographies of the subjects themselves, and articles about Indigenous and colonial history.

Shining a Light on the Past

The debate over such monuments is wider in scope than the reputations of the subjects themselves. Some historians argue against “presentism” — applying modern standards to past societies in which attitudes considered repugnant today were the norm. By that measure, each generation is likely to render harsh judgement on its predecessors; taken to its most extreme level, that would mean no one could ever be honoured.

Delegates of the Charlottetown Conference, PEI, 1864.
Image: Library and Archives Canada / PA-091061.

Then, there is the question of balancing positive achievements against items of controversy. Do Macdonald’s overall achievements outweigh his actions toward Indigenous peoples? Successive prime ministers after Macdonald similarly supported policies with harsh impact toward Indigenous people and other groups. How should their legacies be treated? Should we remove monuments of prominent past figures judged to have violated standards we set, or erect new monuments that reflect a fuller context by featuring, say, Indigenous achievers of that time? Or should we leave monuments alone as statements — positive or negative — of the prevailing values of the time in which they were erected?

“History,” as George Orwell famously observed, "is written by the winners." But grappling with our past is a crucial step toward coming to terms with who we are today. All around the world, other countries are doing the same, with varying degrees of consensus — or animus. Canadians should not expect to be exempt from that. Rather, we should be comfortable with shining a brighter light on our past — even if it sometimes reveals dark shadows within.

Residential School Students
Indigenous students on the steps of a residential school near Woodstock, New Brunswick (date unknown).

(See also: The Name Debate: Why Sir John A’s Name Should Stay and The Name Debate: Changing a Statue’s Meaning.)

Anthony Wilson-Smith is president and CEO of Historica Canada, and publisher of The Canadian Encyclopedia.