Remembering and Commemorating a Complicated Past

Nellie McClung 1910

Nellie McClung 1910

In Saturday’s Globe and Mail, reporter Patrick White wrote a national story about how a Winnipeg human-rights lawyer, David Matas, is opposing plans to erect a statue of Nellie McClung – the well-known Canadian feminist and moral reformer, perhaps best known for being one of the ‘Famous Five‘ who fought the ‘Persons Case‘ – on the grounds of the Manitoba legislature:

“It’s misconceived,” he said. “It’s minimizing and putting aside some of the things she stood for.”

While Mr. Matas doesn’t deny Ms. McClung’s influential role in gaining the vote for Canadian women, he does take umbrage at her prominent support of the eugenics movement.

“It was the scientific basis of racism,” he said. “The whole eugenics movement is very problematic.”

White continues in his article to discuss some of the basic historic contours of eugenics in Canada, noting briefly that Tommy Douglas – the social democratic father of Medicare – was a proponent, and sterilization was made provincial policy in Alberta and British Columbia. There was a long and brutal history of eugenics in Canada, with patients being sterilized without their knowledge. For example, in Alberta, Leilani Muir received appendix surgery in 1959 and was sterilized without her knowledge, a fact that she discovered only years later when she was unable to conceive. It wasn’t until 1996 that she was able to achieve some justice, setting the path for many other victims to settle with the provincial government.

In my own teaching this year, I found eugenics a tricky subject to tackle.We had a great debate in our tutorial. The prevailing view was that eugenics was ‘fascist,’ thanks to an article we had read that week on Nazi reproductive policies. Thanks to the memory of the Second World War, this is the popular memory, and was instrumental in dismantling many forced sterilization and eugenics programs after it all came to light. Yet once I began bringing up the history of eugenics in Canada, from Tommy Douglas to Leilani Muir, one student gutsily argued that eugenics was ‘progressive’ for the time, with respects to public health, poverty, etc. It was an uncomfortable discussion, to be sure, when speaking of these devastating policies that had such an impact on people’s reproductive rights and privileges. But these are the same questions that must vex people as they ponder whether to honour somebody like Nellie McClung. At the time, how common were her views? Ought she to know that they were wrong?

The question of honouring public figures who held public views that today are beyond the pale is a fascinating one, and a common one for public historians and those seeking to honour past individuals. The most notable is the case of Louis Riel: convicted of treason in 1885 and executed, but today many historians and members of the public call for a posthumous pardon. Another significant moment of public honouring conflicting with past behaviour was that of Clara Brett Martin, Canada’s first female lawyer. Plans to name a government building after her were scuppered when her early-20th century anti-Semitic views came to light.

On the other hand, we do honour many historic figures despite their involvement in historical activities now seen as dubious or un-heroic. The city of Moncton itself is named after Robert Monckton, an integral figure in the story of the Acadian deportation and subsequent diaspora. Edward Cornwallis, commemorated with a statue in Halifax’s aptly-named Cornwallis Park, called for a bounty on Mi’kmaw natives in the mid-18th century. Should we be revisiting these statues, or honours?

What do you think? Should this weigh on officials and the public when we consider whether or not to erect another statue, or a plaque, or any form of official recognition? How should one respond to Matas, the seemingly principled human rights lawyer? How does one teach these subjects with an eye to historic sensitivity, but also a full and honest sense of how deleterious these policies were?

My thanks to Tom Peace and Christine McLaughlin, who provided some great examples when I was thinking out this question.

5 thoughts on “Remembering and Commemorating a Complicated Past

  1. This is a great post. It raises some of the fundamental questions in history teaching. I always have urged my students to understand first, judge later. But there issues where we all have gut reactions, eugenics being one. Another is Canada’s immigration policy- Chinese exclusion, the Creek Negroes excluded, the refusal to admit Jewish refugees, etc. Students have a reflex to condemn. Yet some will struggle to understand when we begin to talk about a country’s right to shape its culture vs basic humanitarianism.
    Good stuff. I enjoy this site.

  2. At a celebration to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the passage of the first eugenic sterilization law in the US, Daniel Kevles gave an address comparing the popularity of eugenics in the early 20th century to the popularity of the enviromental movement today. He didn’t mean to make a statement decrying the environmental movement, but wanted to draw attention of the popularity of eugenics among the general public and the movement’s impact on shaping public policy. I thought that this comparison was very apt — and always tell my students about it when I am trying to explain the eugenics movement. I think this comparison also helps us think further about the issue of how and when to honor public figures. I guess in my personal judgment the question would be, how much were individuals directly involved in the implementation and execution of policies we decry today. There are, as you point out, very important figures we would be unable to honor if support of eugenics were the reason we found such honor inappropriate. In the US, for instance, Margaret Sanger comes to mind.

    Important issues and excellent post.

  3. There’s a strong movement in Halifax to have plaques up explaining the crimes of Cornwallis, and to rename several places, like the park and a local school.

    I do think we should be revisiting several of these honours and discussing their significance and appropriateness, and discussing how to best talk about McClung’s racist, classist, and ableist arguments. I think part of the problem is we like to have Heroic Heroes in our history, rather than people who were complicated. Once we’ve bought into the idea that people are either saints or sinners, it becomes pretty much impossible to teach anything with nuance.

  4. The movement is Halifax is interesting for a number of reasons. Perhaps most importantly because it draws attention to the issues Ian discussed, but also because it demonstrates successful ways of using history that fall outside of the more professional constraints most often associated with practicing history.

    We posted a little bit about this a couple of weeks ago: http://activehistory.ca/2010/04/street-history/ but perhaps more importantly we also linked to Dan Paul’s petition to have the all-things Cornwallis re-named: http://www.petitiononline.com/01101749/petition.html.

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