Ideals Not Within Their Grasp: A Defence of the Laurier Statue Project

Many a Golden Hawk these days is pissed off at the administration of our university. To be fair I understand why. I have been among those to rail against, what I see as, massive financial mismanagement of WLU since the double cohort and an attitude towards the students of this university that goes from dismissive at best to outright offensive at worst. I don’t hold my words when they come to me and I’ll target anything that I think deserves the criticism.

A number of my peers have been particularly incensed at the recent announcement of the construction of 22 bronze statues commemorating the Prime Ministers of Canada that will be placed around Wilfrid Laurier University over the next 2 years. While I think there is some criticism needed of this process (the lack of public consultation) and the statues themselves, I’m not going to sign the petition calling for the halting of the project, and will go further to say that I want Laurier to have not only these statues, but more of other prominent Canadians.

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1) The Cost and the Aesthetic

This is a bit of an inconsequential point but it’s important in how it contextualizes my feelings towards this. Laurier, while I love it, is a bit of a pedestrian university. The architecture crosses numerous styles that oftentimes clash, the campus feels cramped and unremarkable, and the school feels like a bunch of buildings tied together for no reason and without adequate parking. The fact that a relatively consistent number of students come here is actually astounding given how unremarkable the campus so often feels. These statues, for a significantly lower cost than they would have cost Victoria Park in Kitchener, are going to bring a degree of prestige to this 100 year old university. There’s something about statues that I just find aesthetically pleasing, and given the Macdonald statue currently sitting in the quad, I have high hopes that the rest of them will make Laurier stand out a little more, which certainly merits the menial cost of the statues. As much as I have problems with the administration, this university is important to me and I’d like to have more people come here, and these statues would have attracted me when I was applying.

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2) A Conversation About History

I want to hold Dr. Blouw to his word that “We will also contemplate extension of the prime ministers project by augmenting it with additional national figures including aboriginal leaders, prominent women, and other historically significant people.”

I am regularly embarrassed by the discourse around Canadian history and heritage that exists among my cohort. Even with the release of the Truth and Reconciliation commission, Canadians are still massively unaware of the history and present of Indian policy in Canada. Not only are they not aware of the policies themselves, they are unaware of the role that our Prime Ministers played in those policies. I have to laugh a little at the assertion from Mike Carroll of the sociology department when he says these statues have no place at WLU. Wilfrid Laurier himself was Prime Minister for at least 3 major revisions to the Indian Act which included measures that allowed aboriginal people to be removed from their lands forcefully and the expropriation of parts or the entirety of reserves if it was deemed “expedient”.

Not only do these statues have a place at WLU, they seem to be ideally suited to WLU. We are not only named for a man who played a large part in the expansion of Indian policy in Canada, this commemoration of our 7th Prime Minister was meaningless because he has no connection to this area of Ontario or this school. These statues can be a good thing as long as in front of them we mark out, very specifically, both the achievements of these people and the negative and destructive actions of their administrations.

 

I think that this project will not only make Laurier a better university, but will make this university a better place for the production of informed Canadians for the future as long as we commit to making these statues a space to talk about Canadian history and not blindly and insultingly commemorating is.

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3) Ideals Not Within Their Grasp

John A. Macdonald is a fascinating figure in Canadian history for a similar reason that Thomas Jefferson is in American History. Both men had high ideals about humanity and government and believed in things that their actions are not consistent with. Jefferson, the writer of that phrase, “We find these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”, held slaves. Macdonald on the other hand, believed that language and culture did not need to be a barrier to self-determination for Canadians. While not as pithy as Jefferson’s phrase, Macdonald’s quote on language was this:

“I have no accord with the desire expressed in some quarters that by any mode whatever there should be an attempt made to oppress the one language or to render it inferior to the other.  I believe it would be impossible if it were tried, and that it would be foolish and wicked if it were possible”

In that age, suggesting that you could have a multicultural democracy was quite an impressive suggestion. And given his treatment of aboriginal people, his comments about the wickedness of linguistic oppression and assimilation seem as hypocritical as Jefferson’s words in the declaration of independence.

Another analogous figure in American history to John A. is Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln did not believe in slavery, but coming into his administration he was willing to put forward an amendment to the US constitution that would have effectively entrenched slavery if it would have stopped the seceding states and the civil war. But more importantly, he, like Macdonald, promoted the construction of a trans-continental railroad which killed thousands of Chinese and Irish immigrants and displaced many more indigenous peoples.

The history of the leaders of Canada and the United States can be summed up as this, men with ideals beyond their grasps. Canadian leaders in particular can be said to have a distinct support for human rights while rarely understanding the consequences of those ideals.

Does anyone think that Pierre Trudeau understood the legislative impact that section 35 of the Constitution Act would have?  Did the nine premiers that signed the constitution in 1982 imagine the impact that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms would have on this country? Did John A. Macdonald understand the impact that his support for a bilingual country would have on the future of this land?

The answer to all those questions I think would be no. And I don’t think that people today have an idea what the impacts, positive and negative of their lives and ideals will have on the Canada of the future. Because we are all people whose ideals are out of reach and often out of sight.

I don’t believe that the commemoration of all leaders is warranted. But there is something special about Canada’s Prime Ministers because of the ideals that they stood for, even when their actions undercut those ideals as significantly as they did. None of Canada’s Prime Ministers are equivalent to Nathan Bedford Forrest or Alexander Stevens or George Wallace. They are our Thomas Jefferson, our Abraham Lincoln, our Lyndon Johnson. They built this chronically complicated and fundamentally flawed country on the idea that different cultures could exist in a nation, together, without squeezing each other out, without assimilation. And even when their policies passively or actively stopped this from applying to many of the groups that have been and are oppressed in in this country, the cultural idea of a unified nation built of many culturally distinct groups is the one thing that I can actually identify as a Canadian culture.

We need to recognize that. We need to recognize the ideals and the flaws. We need to remember the atrocities and the great leaps forward. And all of this, in spite of other salient details that people hold up in the discussion of these statues, is why I want them there. Why I want them and more. I want physical reminders of their ideals and how they broke with them. I want physical reminders of the people that resisted them. I want Canadian history in a way that reminds us of what this country might one day be, even if we aren’t there yet.

I want to remember the words of Jack Layton,

“My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”

While also remembering that those words were paraphrased from Wilfrid Laurier,

“Let me tell you that for the solution of these problems you have a safe guide, an unfailing light if you remember that<b> faith is better than doubt and love is better than hate.</b> Banish hate and doubt from your life. Let your souls be ever open to the promptings of faith and the gentle influence of brotherly love. Be adamant against the haughty, be gentle and kind to the weak. Let your aim and purpose, in good report or ill, in victory or defeat, be so to live, so to strive, so to serve as to do your part to raise even higher the standard of life and living…”

And recognize that this heritage of ideas is what makes Canada, Canada.

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