Corn­wal­lis and Ry­er­son: he­roes or vil­lains?

The peo­ple who built this na­tion had their flaws, like ev­ery other per­son in his­tory

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - GERRY BOWLER

How much of a hero do you have to be to war­rant a statue? How much of a vil­lain do you have to be to have your name stripped from streets, bridges or schools?

The brouhaha sur­round­ing the mem­ory of Ed­ward Corn­wal­lis and Eger­ton Ry­er­son means that Cana­di­ans and their gov­ern­men­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tives need to se­ri­ously con­sider these ques­tions. At first glance, it would seem ob­vi­ous that these two men are wor­thy of hon­our and praise.

Corn­wal­lis was, af­ter all, the founder of Hal­i­fax. He ar­rived in Nova Sco­tia in 1749 with 2,500 set­tlers, chose the site for a town, and worked to de­fend and ex­pand his set­tle­ment, now the largest city in the Mar­itimes.

Ry­er­son had a splen­did ca­reer in 19th-cen­tury On­tario as a Methodist min­is­ter, news­pa­per ed­i­tor, his­to­rian, op­po­nent of oli­garchy, founder of Vic­to­ria Col­lege but, above all, as the ar­chi­tect of the pro­vin­cial ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem — uni­ver­sal, free and gov­ern­ment-sup­ported — that be­came a model for ev­ery prov­ince and ter­ri­tory in Canada.

So why are some de­mand­ing that stat­ues to these men be taken down and their names erased from com­mu­nity sites?

Both men, it’s claimed, wrought harm on the in­di­genes of their day.

In re­sponse to na­tive at­tacks on his set­tlers, Corn­wal­lis placed a bounty on Mi’kmaq scalps — the same sort of in­duce­ment that his French and Mi’kmaq en­e­mies reg­u­larly placed on the hair of the Bri­tish they killed. His bounty was in­ef­fec­tive (it may have yielded one scalp) and he quickly re­scinded the or­der. But for the sin of us­ing the same meth­ods as his na­tive op­po­nents, to­day’s Mi’kmaq de­mand the ex­pung­ing of Corn­wal­lis’s pub­lic pres­ence.

Ry­er­son’s present sham­ing re­sults from him be­ing an ar­chi­tect of the In­dian Res­i­den­tial School sys­tem, the same crime for which Hec­tor-Louis Langevin has re­cently and con­tro­ver­sially paid a high price.

The prob­lem is that we have two men who made im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tions to their coun­try in the 18th and 19th cen­turies, but who also per­formed deeds that up­set some Cana­di­ans in the 21st cen­tury. Which set of ac­tions out­weighs the other? Do we put a tarp over Corn­wal­lis’s statue on week­days but re­move it on week­ends and Natal Day (the cel­e­bra­tion of Hal­i­fax’s birth­day)? Is it Ry­er­son Univer­sity dur­ing term time and Mid-Ranked For­mer Toronto Polytech­nic the rest of the year? Or do we oblit­er­ate the mem­ory of these fel­lows al­to­gether?

“Use ev­ery man af­ter his desert,” said Ham­let, “and who shall ’scape whip­ping?” No one, no his­tor­i­cal fig­ure, no mat­ter how revered, ever lived with­out flaws.

Louis Riel, rightly lauded for his role in the found­ing of Man­i­toba, ended his life as a false mes­siah who wanted to re­name the North Star af­ter his sis­ter and move the pa­pacy to Mon­treal; a failed leader whose de­ci­sions brought ruin on the Métis of the Northwest. Yet we have erected two stat­ues of Riel in Win­nipeg and name a pub­lic hol­i­day af­ter him.

By to­day’s stan­dards, Win­ston Churchill was a racist and made some very dis­oblig­ing re­marks about Is­lam, but who will deny that he is wor­thy of our grat­i­tude for hav­ing helped save civ­i­liza­tion from Adolf Hitler?

Martin Luther King was a pla­gia­rist and adul­terer but he re­mains an idol­ized fig­ure in the United States.

Tommy Dou­glas, founder of medi­care, was once a pro­po­nent of eu­gen­ics, ster­il­iz­ing and seg­re­gat­ing the men­tally hand­i­capped, yet his fel­low coun­try­men voted him the ti­tle of The Great­est Cana­dian.

“The evil that men do lives af­ter them; the good is oft in­terred with their bones.” That may have been a cun­ning piece of rhetoric for Wil­liam Shake­speare’s Mark Antony, but it’s bad ad­vice for a coun­try to take.

A na­tion must have he­roes and we must hon­our the men and women who helped build Canada. An ap­proach that rec­og­nizes in each his­tor­i­cal fig­ure an over­all bal­ance of ben­e­fits, of good deeds and bad at­ti­tudes, will save us from a cease­less round of re­vi­sion­ism and end­less moan­ing about the sins of our an­ces­tors.

Gerry Bowler is a his­to­rian and a se­nior fel­low at the Fron­tier Cen­tre for Pub­lic Pol­icy. Dis­trib­uted by Troy Me­dia

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