Many summers ago I was in the military band performing the daily Changing The Guard ceremony on Parliament Hill. The building directly across Wellington Street from the band’s parade position was the Langevin Block, which now houses the Prime Minister’s Office.
One of our trumpet players found that the building offered a beautiful acoustic foil for his high note at the end of our march-on music. Every morning he would aim his trumpet at the flat façade of the block and we’d all thrill to the echo.
And that was all I ever knew, or cared, about Sir Hector-Louis Langevin.
Of course I know a lot more now, thanks to the successful campaign to remove Langevin’s name from the building. I know of his career in the early federal cabinets, his role in establishing Indian Residential Schools, and his ultimate retirement from cabinet following a political scandal. I also learned that he was one of very few Conservative politicians who was opposed to the hanging of Louis Riel.
It’s been a hundred years since Langevin had any currency as a subject for public debate. But those who knew his story, and who protested his lionization as a Canadian hero, have done us all a service by bringing his history—our history—into the light.
The debate about our national “heroes” rages on as we question the worthiness of those we have immortalized as statues. Icons of John A. Macdonald and Egerton Ryerson are the latest pigeon-perches to come down.
Hands up if you knew Ryerson University was named after someone called Egerton. Bonus points if you knew anything at all about him.
This is where the argument that reassessing these figures is “erasing our history” falls to the ground. We are learning our history precisely because people are challenging it.
Statues are not there to preserve or teach history, they are there to commemorate the people we think worthy of the honour. We don’t erect statues of people we consider to be historical villains after all, even if they are historically important.
Yes, even heroes are human; and all humans are flawed. History, too, is flawed. It amplifies some voices at the expense of others. It can even perpetuate untruths as it builds a unifying collective mythology. But a true understanding of history means finding and listening to the voices of the past—not just the official record, but the voices of the people who lived at the time. We need to learn the truth.
Should statues be toppled as we gain a new understanding of our history? To be honest, I seriously don’t care. At worst, it’s an act of property vandalism. Issue tickets and levy fines, I guess. One lump of cast bronze more or less will not affect our understanding of history one way or the other.
But with or without our Macdonald statues or Langevin blocks, we have a lot to learn and understand about ourselves. If it takes petty vandalism against a statue for us to talk about and come to terms with the great crimes of our past, I have a hard time being outraged about it.