A pe­cu­liar game of royal mu­si­cal thrones

Here’s how we of­fered sanc­tu­ary to other coun­tries’ sur­plus stat­ues of kings and queens

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - MARTIN REGG COHN Martin Regg Cohn’s po­lit­i­cal col­umn ap­pears in Torstar news­pa­pers. mcohn@thes­tar.ca, Twit­ter: @reg­gcohn

Is there a statute of lim­i­ta­tions on stat­ues?

Do per­son­al­i­ties of the past de­serve amnesties af­ter the fact, for­giv­ing their trans­gres­sions while san­i­tiz­ing their tri­umphs? Or must our founders be held to ac­count, forc­ing their fol­low­ers to ad­mit that his­tor­i­cal lega­cies are sub­ject to lat­ter day judg­ments?

There are no easy an­swers, but one more ques­tion:

For all the fuss over eras­ing the images of Eger­ton Ry­er­son in Toronto and Ed­ward Corn­wal­lis in Hal­i­fax, why do we give a pass to their over­lords who is­sued the over­ar­ch­ing or­ders? All th­ese years later, no one seems to de­mand that the stat­ues of our for­mer mon­archs be top­pled, and that the crown be abol­ished.

On the man­i­cured grounds of Queen’s Park, an im­pos­ing statute of Queen Vic­to­ria, perched on her throne, reigns over the Leg­isla­tive As­sem­bly. Flank­ing it to the north is a com­mand­ing im­age of King Ed­ward VII on horse­back.

Why ques­tion the legacy of a dead king at Queen’s Park? His­tory records that Ed­ward VII and his horse reached Toronto only af­ter a cir­cuitous jour­ney.

His statue was un­veiled in Delhi, com­mem­o­rat­ing his pass­ing as Em­peror of In­dia. Savour­ing its in­de­pen­dence, In­dia dumped the statue on On­tario — home of the United Em­pire Loy­al­ists — which granted refuge to the king in 1969.

An­other statue of Queen Vic­to­ria, over­look­ing the Ir­ish par­lia­ment, was sim­i­larly re­tired to a Dublin ware­house un­til monar­chists in Sydney, Aus­tralia, claimed it as their own in 1986. The statue al­most made it to Lon­don, Ont., but for a lack of funds.

We play a pe­cu­liar game of royal mu­si­cal thrones: Other de­col­o­nized democ­ra­cies un­load un­wanted his­tor­i­cal bag­gage, and we cheer­fully of­fer sanc­tu­ary to their sur­plus stat­ues of kings and queens.

Why do Cana­di­ans cling to the crown, whether in per­son or in sculp­ture? It’s worth not­ing that many of the Indigenous pro­test­ers who con­demn Ry­er­son or Corn­wal­lis have lit­tle en­thu­si­asm for abo­li­tion of the monar­chy. In­deed, Prince Charles has at least three cer­e­mo­nial names granted by Indigenous hosts, and he was warmly re­ceived on a visit to Iqaluit last month.

The As­sem­bly of First Na­tions ar­gues there are im­por­tant fidu­ciary ties to the crown dat­ing to the Royal Procla­ma­tion of 1763. But Indigenous af­fec­tion for our fu­ture king seems at odds with the in­jus­tices per­pe­trated by, or for, his an­ces­tors.

Upon in­de­pen­dence, the Ir­ish were less for­giv­ing, fault­ing Queen Vic­to­ria for famine, re­pres­sion and ex­e­cu­tions. Politi­cians ob­jected that this “relic of im­pe­ri­al­ism should still dis­grace the precincts of our par­lia­men­tary in­sti­tu­tion.”

When the Aus­tralians later of­fered to res­cue her from stor­age, Dublin was di­vided about lib­er­at­ing her, ac­cord­ing to de­clas­si­fied cabi­net doc­u­ments not­ing her place in “Ir­ish his­tory. It is part of our her­itage in no less a way than Nor­man or Vik­ing re­mains.”

The Ir­ish ul­ti­mately evicted the Queen with a crane. Sep­a­ratist rad­i­cals in Que­bec dy­na­mited her out of Mon­treal’s Vic­to­ria Square in 1963.

As a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent, I be­came fas­ci­nated by hero wor­ship and the cult of per­son­al­ity, man­i­fested in stat­ues or pro­pa­ganda posters. I vis­ited the mau­soleums of Mao Ze­dong in Bei­jing, Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi and Kim Il-sung in Py­ongyang to be­hold their em­balmed corpses on pub­lic dis­play — ev­i­dence of how dead dic­ta­tors live on.

But cults come and go — I watched in amaze­ment as my Chi­nese Com­mu­nist friends at univer­sity lit­er­ally crossed out the faces of politi­cians who were purged from the rul­ing party af­ter Mao’s death.

I can­not imag­ine a statue to Hitler stand­ing any­where in Ger­many. No sur­prise that Sad­dam Hus­sein mon­u­ments were top­pled af­ter his de­feat in Iraq. Which brings us back to Canada’s com­pli­cated his­tory.

As gover­nor of a nascent Nova Sco­tia, Corn­wal­lis crossed a line when he is­sued the in­fa­mous Scalp­ing Procla­ma­tion of 1749 of­fer­ing a bounty for any Mi’kmaq adult or child (Three years ear­lier Corn­wal­lis had led sol­diers paci­fy­ing Scot­land’s West­ern High­lands, where “sus­pected Ja­co­bite fam­i­lies were boarded into homes and burned to death,” ac­cord­ing to the Canadian En­cy­clo­pe­dia.) Such eth­nic cleans­ing de­mands a his­tor­i­cal reck­on­ing.

By con­trast, the cam­paign against Ry­er­son seems mis­placed. His­to­ri­ans note his close ties to Indigenous peo­ple, his as­pi­ra­tions for ed­u­ca­tion and the lack of any di­rect link to the Res­i­den­tial Schools calamity that came much later (full dis­clo­sure — I have just been named a dis­tin­guished vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at the univer­sity).

Each statue, like each story, is full of con­tra­dic­tions. We are not alone in re­vis­it­ing our mon­u­ments or re­vis­ing our his­tory, which can­not be frozen in time. In­dia and Ire­land did it, and the U.K. and U.S. are do­ing it now.

The only cer­tainty is that the vic­tors get to write his­tory. The van­quished try to re­write it. And writ­ers keep writ­ing about it — not least the need to one day abol­ish the monar­chy and its legacy.


Pedes­tri­ans stop for a break by the King Ed­ward VII statue at Queen’s Park in Toronto. The statue only ended up there be­cause In­dia no longer wanted the sym­bol of the monar­chy.

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