The news recently has been filled with stories about groups and individuals who would take down monuments or change the names of buildings or institutions which honour historical figures who we now know are not quite as honourable as whoever did the naming may have thought.
Here in Ottawa, for example, the federal government recently changed the name of the Langevin Block building, the office building directly across Wellington Street from Parliament Hill which houses the Prime Minister’s Office. The building is now simply known as the Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took that action because Hector-Louis Langevin, for whom the building was named, was an architect of the residential school system that we now know was an instrument of cultural genocide against Canada’s Indigenous peoples.
In the southern United States there has been a movement to remove monuments honouring leaders of the Confederacy – the group of southern states who fought the American Civil War against the U.S. – their prime issue being the right to own slaves, other human beings, as property.
The issue of the Confederate monuments came to a head on August 12 and 13 when an ugly mob of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and KKK members went to Charlottesville, Virginia to march in defence of a statue of Robert E. Lee – the Confederate general whose surrender ended the Civil War – which the Charlottesville City Council had decided to take down.
(And while the Lee statue was the supposed raison d’être for the Charlottesville marches, the dominant rallying cry was the horrifyingly anti-Semitic chant, “You will not replace us/Jews will not replace us.”)
In the days and weeks after the events in Charlottesville – including the terrorist incident in which a white supremacist purposefully drove his car at high speed into a crowd of counter-demonstrators murdering Heather Heyer and injuring many others – U.S. President Donald Trump made common cause with the anti-Semitic and racist mob in his defence of the Confederate statues. “They’re trying to take away our culture. They’re trying to take away our history,” said Trump of those who would remove what are, essentially, monuments to the institution of slavery and to those who led a treasonous war against the United States.
In 2011, I wrote a column in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin arguing that the City of Ottawa should not name its new archives building in honour of Charlotte Whitton, the city’s first female mayor. Why? Because history tells us that the anti-Semitic Whitton was responsible for ensuring that 500 Jewish refugee orphans ended up in Auschwitz instead of Canada during the Holocaust – an episode documented by historians Irving Abella and Harold Troper in None is Too Many.
Despite what they knew about Whitton in 2011, the mayor and most city councillors voted to name the building for her anyway. Thankfully, they eventually relented to pressure from the Jewish community and other groups and the building was not named for her.
Changing the names of buildings, streets, parks and institutions named for people responsible for tremendous wrongs, or whose legacies remain painful, or removing monuments to them, is not changing history – it is acknowledging history. And there remains much work to do in this regard. For example, just a two-minute walk from the Jewish community campus in Montreal is Isabella Avenue, which honours the queen who expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492. That’s a street name that should be changed.