Calls to remove statue from city’s gay village mangle history, again
WE’RE NOW THE NORTH AMERICAN CAPITAL FOR TRANSNATIONAL CRIME SYNDICATES. — MADDEAUX
A TESTAMENT TO THE EXISTENCE OF LGBTQ PARTICIPATION.
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.