A new approach to debates over Macdonald and other monuments in Canada: Part 1

By Stéphane Lévesque

“One of the things we heard very clearly from the Indigenous family members” says recently re-elected Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps (2018), “is that coming to city hall… and walking past John A. Macdonald every time, feels contradictory. And if the city is serious about reconciliation, which I would say we are, then one important thing we do is temporarily remove the [statue] from the front steps of city hall.”[1]

The city of Victoria’s recent political decision to take down the statue of Macdonald is not trivial. It came at a strategic moment when local, provincial, and national governments face pressing demands to remove historic monuments or rename buildings and sites of memory, from Hector Langevin to Egerton Ryerson and John A. Macdonald. How should Canadian authorities respond? What role could historical consciousness play with respect to these pressing demands?

Given the various articles on the subject on Active History[2], my goal is not to replicate their important contributions but rather to discuss their implication for public education and historical consciousness using Canada as a context for analysis.

Why them? Why now?

Monuments are making news around the world: from South Africa to Argentina, from Australia to Canada. Christopher Columbus, James Cook, Cecil Rhodes, and John A. Macdonald never met one another but they all share something in common: they symbolize the new history war – a frontal public attack on powerful historical male figures who represent contested narratives of the collective past. Why is this happening now?

    1. According to Pierre Nora, the actual debates are the result of a profound change in our common approach to the past: the “general politicization of history[3] For Nora, popular interests in history emerged at the same moment when historians’ works were being transformed into ideologies for particular claims about the past – postcolonial, anti-racist, political, etc. This “general politicisation of history” should be understood in its referential context of Nora’s metaphorical rivalry between “memory” (the practice of remembrance and heritage fashioning) and “history” (the intellectual activity of reconstructing the past as representations). For him, the current acceleration of global change has led individuals and groups alike to a deep sense of instability and historical sensibility unprecedented in human history. This acceleration has resulted in a pressing need to (re)connect with the past – real or invented – as a way to (re)orient their life. “History versus politics,” Nora contends, “is today’s conflict, and the word “politics” covers both memory and ideology.” This new antagonistic pair has led to profound questions for the discipline: What role should Western civilization and its associated modes of thinking (including disciplinary history) play in historical culture? Where does the boundary lie between vernacular and group identities? Is there a parallel between scientific development and domination, between knowledge and forms of imperialism?
    2. The second reason (related to the first one) is what Peter Seixas calls the “empowerment of previously disempowered groups”.[4] The Rights Revolution of the last fifty years has radically transformed power relations. In South Africa, the Americas, Europe, and other places, the new political force of women, ethnic minorities, African-Americans, and Aboriginal peoples has provoked “a re-examination of the stories of the past” as well as what counts as “history”. People and subjects traditionally deemed insignificant of study (e.g., residential schooling, slavery, immigration head tax) now occupy centre-stage. Conversely, the prominence of the “great men” has been disputed seriously. As Seixas contends, this redefinition could only arise in a secular, post-national era because theological and nation-building paradigms conventionally provided the direction and meaning for the inclusion of events/people into master-narratives.
    3. Finally, globalization and its associated technologies have not only brought people from around the world into communication with each other, but also provided additional means for individuals – the educated and the uneducated – to acquire information and voice their opinion publicly. From the Arab Spring of 2010 to President Trump’s tweets on Confederate monuments, communication technologies and their associated social media platforms have altered – some might say disrupted – our relation to knowledge.[5] “The challenge,” as Sam Wineburg and his colleagues remind us, “is bigger than fake news.”[6] The survival of democracy depends on the capacity of citizens to access and use information intelligently, and increasingly the Internet is where people go to look for it.

Monuments as sites of memory and historical consciousness

Dealing with monuments is not a mere matter of taking them down. As historian Thomas Cauvin contends, it is a serious, complex question due to the impassionate public opinions and the multiple contexts in which these debates take place.[7] For example, the Canadian memorial issue over the fate of Sir John A. Macdonald, first prime minister of Canada and architect of the residential school system for assimilating Indigenous peoples, is different from the ones dealing with Confederate Commander Robert E. Lee or British magnate Cecil Rhodes. But as a history educator, I believe that we could all benefit, as Canadian citizens, from competencies of historical consciousness as opposed to general politicization.

Figure 1: Matrix of historical consciousness

In order to analyze the role of historical consciousness, it is useful to begin with a conceptual way of thinking about monuments as sites of memory – places where people engage publicly in acts of commemoration.[8] Both Seixas and Lévesque have recently offered complementary frameworks on the relationship between history and memory in society, which can serve as a basis for discussion.[9] My own matrix (see Figure 1) has been transposed as follows for this analysis.

    • Historical culture: Monuments are embedded into distinctive historical cultures which encompass the totality of discourses in which a society understands itself and its future by narrating the past. These sites of memory are topoi with a life history, documenting not only aspects of past historical cultures but our own memory reactions in the present as members of given cultures.
    • Culture and life practice: Monuments, like other sites of memory, play important functions in society. People rely on these objects and instruments of historical culture to generate narratives for life orientation and identity formation, which, in turn, inform public memories, community-building, and social behaviours through the mechanism of the cadres sociaux (social frames). As monuments exist in context with an inherent ambiguity about the past and their purpose, multiple stories can be generated over time.[10] Practical approaches to the past (everyday mental heuristics), which are poorly regulated by “valid methods and methodological reflection,” tend to govern thinking process of everyday life practice.[11]
    • Disciplinary history: The roles and functions of monuments and other sites of memory are studied through scholarly historical research and discourse. Societal issues (e.g., Who controls the creation of monuments? Should we remove certain monuments?) generate research questions which are investigated through a rigorous evidence-based analytical process. Historical thinking tools are used to arrive “independently at reasonable, informed opinions” open to further discussion and criticism.[12] Historians’ narrative arguments are reintroduced into historical culture and generate additional questions and demands for life practice.

Competencies of historical consciousness

Monuments are distinctive sites of memory with inherent messages; they are, so to speak, narratives. Jörn Rüsen calls them “narrative abbreviations” because they convey visual and memorial representations that connect the past, the present, and the future. Learning to engage with a monument is thus a complex act of narrative understanding and competence. As Andreas Körber argues:

It therefore is paramount to read monuments as narratives, and not only in the de-constructive sense of “what did those erectors make of that past back then”, but also in the re-constructive sense of “in how far or how does this narrative fit into my/our relation to that past”. In other words: Standing before a monument and thinking about monuments, we all need to (and in fact do) think in a combination of understanding the others and deliberating our own narrative meaning-making.[13]

Following Körber, I believe that we as scholars have a responsibility to (1) analyze monuments using our repertoire of historiographic methods and concepts in order to stimulate and support informed public discussion, (2) help contextualize people’s own reactions and positionality with regard to monument debates; and (3) further people’s own competence to address these issues in an informed way (to reflect on the nature, meaning, and message of a monument both at the time of its construction and for us today).

If we consider historical consciousness as the mental structure that underlies our understanding and dealing with important aspects of historical culture, then we can possibly articulate a set of overarching dimensions to engage in disputes over monuments (Should we keep them? Remove them? Replace them?). Lindsay Gibson has recently offered Active History readers a useful framework based on historical thinking concepts to address specific questions about Canadian monuments.

Figure 2: Competences of historical consciousness

These questions are important and should be included in a broader consideration of the functional role of historical consciousness in narrating history and understanding competing arguments about the collective past as memorialized in monuments. Following Gibson’s initiative and the influential works of Rüsen, Körber, and others, we can possibly infer the following comprehensive set of competencies for engaging in memory debates (see Figure 2):

  • Inquiry competence: Ability to devise historical questions and engage in evidence-based investigation (Why does Canada have monuments? Who created them? What should we do with monuments of Macdonald? What sources can tell me about the issue? How can I evaluate the value/credibility of these sources? Why are monuments important to me/society?)
  • Historical thinking competence: Ability to think historically about memory issues using key historical thinking concepts (What makes Macdonald significant to remember? For whom? Why were monuments created for him? What has changed/remained the same since their creation? What was the context in which Macdonald lived? How did people at the time react to Macdonald’s ideas/policies? Under what standards should we judge Macdonald’s actions? How are these standards universal/culturally-bound? Should Macdonald be memorialized given his legacy?)
  • Orientation competence: Ability to relate information and narratives about the past into one’s own practical life (What can I/we learn from Macdonald’s life? What obligation do I/we have to Macdonald and his legacy? How do monuments affect my views about the past/future? How are my views shaped by the larger historical culture in which I live?)
  • Narrative competence: Ability to read, create, and understand the structure of historical narratives (How are historical narrative constructed? What functions do they play in culture? What narratives about Macdonald can we create? How plausible are these narratives? What value judgments do they hold? How can we adjudicate between competing narratives? On what empirical/normative ground?)

Of course, these questions are far from complete and there is a variety of ways of addressing them from different standpoints. As a result, Rüsen’s typology of historical consciousness, as Gabriel Reich rightly suggests,[14] offers a useful delineation model for understanding structural change in our dealing with these four dimensions and related set of questions. This typology is structured around four types of consciousness ranging from “traditional” through to “exemplary,” “critical,” and “genetic.”[15] While Rüsen meant to offer a typology that encompasses the entire field of empirical manifestations of historical thinking, the articulation of distinctive dimensions into competencies can provide useful abilities to carry out the procedures for thinking historically about monuments and their narrative meaning for us. In my next article, I will discuss how we could possibly delineate a distinctive approach for dealing with historical complexity and debates over sites of memory.

Stéphane Lévesque is professor and director of the Virtual History and Stories Lab at the University of Ottawa. An original version of this article was published by Stéphane Lévesque, Removing the “Past”: Debates Over Official Sites of Memory Public History Weekly 6 (2018) 29, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2018-12570. Copyright (c) 2018 by De Gruyter Oldenbourg and the author, all rights reserved. This original work may be copied and redistributed for non-commercial, educational purposes, if permission is granted by the author and usage right holders. For permission please contact the editor-in-chief (see here). All articles are reliably referenced via a DOI, which includes all comments that are considered an integral part of the publication.

[1] In J. McElroy, City of Victoria to remove John A. Macdonald statue from front steps of city hall, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Posted Aug 08, 2018.https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/john-a-statue-victoria-helps-1.4777810.

[2] For a thorough list of posts on this subject on ActiveHistory.ca see the tags for monuments, commemoration, Edward Cornwallis, and Sir John A. Macdonald. 

[3] Pierre Nora, Recent history and the new dangers of politicization, Eurozine (November 2011).  https://www.eurozine.com/recent-history-and-the-new-dangers-of-politicization/.

[4] Peter Seixas, The Purposes of Teaching Canadian History, Canadian Social Studies 36, 2 (2002). http://historicalthinking.ca/sites/default/files/files/docs/The%20Purposes%20of%20Teaching%20Canadian%20History.pdf.

[5] See for instance Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business (New York: Vintage Books, 2013); Jeremy Heimans, and Tim Dixon, Technology is a great tool – but it is people that will change politics, The Guardian (June 26, 2011). https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/jun/26/politics-change-new-technology;  and Adrienne Lafrance, Irina Raicu, and Eric Goldman, The Next Great Experiment, The Atlantic (2 May 2017). https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/05/the-next-great-experiment/523890.

[6] Sarah McGrew, Teresa Ortega, Joel Breakstone, Sam Wineburg, The Challenge That’s Bigger Than Fake News, American Educator (Fall 2017), 4-9.

[7] Thomas Cauvin, Controversies over Monuments: An Opportunity for International Public History. Public History Weekly 5 (2017) 42, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2017-10685.

[8] See Pierre Nora, Realms of Memory: The Construction of the French Past, Translated by Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997); and Susannah Radstone and Bill Schwartz (eds.), Memory: Histories, Theories, Debates (New York: Fordham University, 2010).

[9] Peter Seixas, A History/Memory Matrix for History Education. Public History Weekly 4 (2015) 6, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2016-5370; and Stéphane Lévesque, Going beyond “Narratives” vs. “Competencies”: A model for understanding history education. Public History Weekly 4 (2016) 12, DOI:  dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2016-5918.

[10] As Robert Parkes notes, monuments and sites of memory are not fixed and silent, they are “texts” documenting something about the historical culture of the time commemorated as well as the time in which they were created. As such, they convey more than one narrative meaning about the past. Robert Parkes, Are Monuments History? Public History Weekly 5 (2017) 34, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2017-10215.

[11] Andreas Körber, Historical consciousness, historical competencies – and beyond? Some conceptual development within German history didactics, 2015, 56 S. – URN: urn:nbn:de:0111-pedocs-108118.

[12] Peter Seixas, Schweigen! die Kinder! or does postmodern history have a place in the schools? Knowing, teaching, and learning history: National and international perspectives. P. N. Stearns, P. Seixas and S. Wineburg (New York, New York University Press, 2000), 25.

[13] Andreas Körber, Analyzing Monuments using crosstabulations of Historical Thinking Competencies and Types of Narrating. Historisch Denken Lernen / Learning to Think Historically Blog Post, published on 16 October 2018. https://historischdenkenlernen.userblogs.uni-hamburg.de/index.php/category/publikationen/blogbeitraege/

[14] Gabriel Reich, Response, in Stéphane Lévesque, Removing the “Past”: Debates Over Official Sites of Memory Public History Weekly 6 (2018) 29, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2018-12570.

[15] Jörn Rüsen, History: Narration, Interpretation, and Orientation (New York: Berghahn Books, 2004), 27-28.


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