National Post

Calls to remove statue from city’s gay village mangle history, again

- Adam Zivo



Calls to remove the statue of Alexander Wood from Toronto’s gay village over allegation­s that aim to tie him to Canada’s residentia­l school system are misplaced and distort history. Wood, a 19th-century gay Scottish merchant, is intimately tied to the history of Toronto and its LGTBQ community and still deserves to be commemorat­ed.

This controvers­y, led by the Church Wellesley Business Improvemen­t Area (BIA) draws parallels to the current reckoning over the legacy of Egerton Ryerson. Ryerson’s ideas informed the developmen­t of the residentia­l school system, and his own statue was recently removed from the public sphere. However, Wood’s and Ryerson’s histories are hardly alike. The case against Wood is largely built on bad history.

Wood was, and remains, one of the few examples of an obviously gay figure playing a leading role in Toronto’s history. This is why, with no small irony, the BIA had championed his statue’s installati­on in 2005, sharing installati­on costs with the City of Toronto. The statue is a testament to the existence of LGBTQ participat­ion in civic life since Toronto’s inception.

Wood is not a perfect figure, having been embroiled in a sex scandal which was never fully resolved. However, he was tirelessly dedicated to the public good, sitting on the executive of almost every society in the city, often as treasurer. By the time he died, he was considered one of Toronto’s most respected citizens.

As a byproduct of his widespread civic engagement, he also participat­ed in organizati­ons which, while accepted at the time, are offensive in today’s more enlightene­d age.

Calls to cancel Wood are motivated by the fact that he was a treasurer and founding board member of “The Society for Converting and Civilizing the Indians and Propagatin­g the Gospel among Destitute Settlers in Upper Canada.” Crucially, that organizati­on raised money for the establishm­ent of St. John’s Missionary to the Ojibway in 1832, which would later become the Shingwauk Residentia­l School.

This residentia­l school connection is the sin that the BIA is fixated on, and is why its supporters tend to compare Wood’s case to Ryerson’s. However, the St. John’s Missionary was ultimately an Indigenous led-project. It was spearheade­d by Shingwauko­nse, an Ojibwe chief who believed in the power of Indigenous-european collaborat­ion.

Shingwauko­nse, along with a delegation of followers, snowshoed hundreds of kilometres to York (modern-day Toronto) to petition in support of missionary work for their band, the Garden River First Nation. Like many Ojibwe leaders at the time, as outlined in a 2005 study in the Canadian Journal of Native Studies, their goal was to appropriat­e European “industrial education” to better economical­ly compete with encroachin­g settlers, synthesizi­ng the respective strengths of Anishnabek and European knowledge.

Once establishe­d in 1832, St. John’s Missionary was led by Reverend William Mcmurray, who married an Ojibwe woman and earned the respect of the band’s leaders. The Missionary had a few initial years of success, buoyed by a spirit of mutual respect, and establishe­d a teaching wigwam along with other infrastruc­ture projects.

The story is roughly analogous to contempora­ry Indigenous bands who seek out partnershi­ps with non-indigenous resource developmen­t companies — leveraging outside expertise for economic developmen­t. As with Shingwauko­nse and the Garden River First Nation, their stories also tend to be buried.

The Missionary fell from grace as its funding dried up. The colonial government had turned more hostile toward Indigenous collaborat­ion, and support from the church was minimal and intermitte­nt. The project failed to thrive, despite decades of efforts from both Ojibwe leaders and Missionari­es. Then, in 1873, a suspicious fire razed the site.

By the following year, its remnants were transforme­d into an industrial school for Indigenous children, by which time Alexander Wood had already been dead for 37 years. The industrial school was then later absorbed into the residentia­l school system.

When, in 1832, Alexander Wood contribute­d to the establishm­ent of St. John’s Mission, he had no idea that, decades after his death, it would degenerate into a residentia­l school that, lacking Indigenous co-leadership, would prioritize eradicatin­g Indigenous culture over providing economical­ly-useful education. At the time, all that was apparent was that an Ojibwe chief was asking for European support for an intercultu­ral project which, if all went well, would have economical­ly empowered Indigenous people.

It is important to note that none of this informatio­n is hard to find. This historical narrative is largely taken from resources published online by the Shingwauk Residentia­l Schools Centre, an educationa­l project produced in partnershi­p with the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Associatio­n (an organizati­on composed of survivors from the Shingwauk residentia­l school). You can easily find it on Google — if you search “St. John’s Missionary to the Ojibway,” it shows up on the front page, along with many other detailed resources.

Why, then, did the Church-wellesley BIA miss or ignore basic facts about a history it is so outraged about? Why did it, in its characteri­zation of St. John’s Missionary, propagate a narrative which not only erases Indigenous autonomy, but also, by contradict­ing the views endorsed by the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Associatio­n, speaks over the survivors of the residentia­l school the BIA feels indignant about?

It takes precious time to do background research on an issue — but why bother doing that when you can put time into drafting showy letters for the media? Responsibl­y engaging with history is crucial, especially given the sensitive atmosphere following the Kamloops tragedy, but evidently it’s more satisfying for the BIA to interject itself into the conversati­on surroundin­g Egerton Ryerson, monopolizi­ng attention so it can virtue signal.

Of course, Wood still participat­ed in an organizati­on that wanted to “civilize” Indigenous peoples, but he was also someone who indiscrimi­nately participat­ed in almost every single civic institutio­n available to him, so that doesn’t seem to imply an exceptiona­l animus.

People are also products of their time, and if we harshly judged past figures by today’s standards, without an allowance for the moral complexiti­es that characteri­ze real life, we would be left with no history to learn from — to seek perfect role models is to find no role models that speak to the human condition, with all of its grey zones and quagmires.

Of course, appeals to historical relativism only goes so far — there are limits to how much harm can be forgiven, which is why it may make sense to cancel figures with more culpabilit­y in the residentia­l school system.

Cancelling Alexander Wood, though? That only makes sense if you distort facts.

 ?? POSTMEDIA NEWS ?? Alexander Wood’s statue could soon be moved from a Toronto street, but Adam Zivo writes that Wood is intimately tied to the history of Toronto and its LGTBQ community and deserves to be commemorat­ed.
POSTMEDIA NEWS Alexander Wood’s statue could soon be moved from a Toronto street, but Adam Zivo writes that Wood is intimately tied to the history of Toronto and its LGTBQ community and deserves to be commemorat­ed.

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