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Comment: Future generations best served by remembering past

In the Yemeni port city of Aden, situated prominently along the harbour on Prince of Wales Crescent, is a statue of Queen Victoria that was erected in 1905.

In the Yemeni port city of Aden, situated prominently along the harbour on Prince of Wales Crescent, is a statue of Queen Victoria that was erected in 1905.

Since the British left Aden in 1967, the country has been run at various times by Arab nationalists, Marxists and Islamic extremists, none of whom feel much affinity for British colonialism. And yet, there Queen Victoria stands, looking out at the harbour, in all her imperial splendour.

Perhaps the people of Aden understand that there is a value to remembering the past, and that keeping statues of past rulers does not mean that you have to approve of them. Piles of stone or metal do not rule, nor do they speak.

People might choose to interpret them however they like, just as we all interpret history in our own way. Some art is created to celebrate things, and other art is created to challenge our beliefs. But all art is open to interpretation by different people in different ways.

Our collective understanding of a building or statue can change from generation to generation. That is the nature of humans and their communities.

Take, for example, the portrait of our first provincial lieutenant-governor, Sir Joseph Trutch, which hangs in a place of honour at Government House. Trutch was involved in many substantial legacies of early British Columbia, from building the Cariboo Wagon Road to advocating for and helping negotiate our entry into Confederation. He also spent much of his career strenuously opposing First Nations land claims, and often made observations about Indigenous Peoples that everyone today would find offensive.

Although most British Columbians living today would find Trutch’s words about “Indians” to be abhorrent, there has never been any public demand that his portrait be removed from Government House, nor has any Indigenous person ever publicly said that they do not feel comfortable visiting Government House because it hangs there.

The portrait of Trutch does not stand as an endorsement of his policies or his views, but as a reminder that he served as lieutenant-governor, and was an important figure in our early history.

It is not the responsibility of society to ensure that nobody ever takes offence to historical facts. It is our responsibility to allow people the opportunity to learn about our history and reflect on it.

The statue of Sir John A. Macdonald in front of city hall was not erected to celebrate his role in creating residential schools, and everybody knows that. It was erected to mark his time as our MP, and to celebrate the connection he gave to this city with the creation and development of Canada as a nation.

There is broad consensus among historians that Canada would not likely exist in the form it does today, if at all, without the vision and hard work of Macdonald. Acknowledging that fact does not require us to ignore his many faults.

Walking by his statue, which was erected to celebrate Canada, should not cause offence to fair-minded people who understand the totality of his legacy. Frankly, those who are so easily offended will never be mollified by the removal of one statue.

Our city council seems to think that if any public art offends somebody, then it should be removed from view. Instead of using the existence of historical memorials as an opportunity to discuss the legacy of important figures, it is better just to hide them away. This is a view that we have nothing to learn from our history, and that any figure from our past whose legacy is tainted must be erased from our public spaces.

The logic behind this way of thinking should lead us to remove hundreds more statues, portraits and plaques from around our city, and to replace them with a generic, antiseptic streetscape that tells no tales of where we came from and who we are. Is it better to, for example, remember Judge Matthew Begbie as a pioneer judge who founded our judicial system, or is it better to erase him from our history because we are uncomfortable with one or two of his verdicts?

The Begbies, Helmckens, Trutches and other prominent early Victorians who built our city and our province are not so different from our leaders today. They were imperfect people who were products of their time, and lived their lives in accordance with the values they saw around them.

No doubt, future generations will find fault in Gordon Campbell, John Horgan and even Lisa Helps.

But those generations will not be best served by burying the memories of those they don’t agree with.

They will be best served by remembering who we were, why we did what we did, and understanding both the positive and negative legacies those leaders left behind.

We should show the same respect for our own history, and spend our time building monuments, rather than tearing them down.

Bruce Hallsor is managing partner of Crease Harman LLP, Victoria’s oldest law firm.

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