On Thursday we were talking about a statue going up. On Friday we were back to talking about a statue coming down. Tragically, though, it wasn’t the same one.
No, the crowd in question wasn’t a marauding mob of Bernini enthusiasts incensed at the state of contemporary sculpture laid bare by the Diana statue. No, it was citizens of Winnipeg, Canada, tearing down a statue of their Queen and ours, Elizabeth II. The same mob dragged down a statue of Queen Victoria, while a different mob on the west coast settled for one of Captain Cook, whose decapitated body was promptly re-consigned to the ocean he so wondrously charted.
The Canadian Residential Schools controversy is being used as a cover for an all-out assault on the country itself
Justin Trudeau’s Canada has been turning a blind eye to iconoclasm for many months, so these latest incidents come as no surprise. On 4 June, charges were dropped against three statue vandals in Toronto. Two days later, the same city’s statue of Egerton Ryerson was toppled and decapitated. Each crime left unpunished serves as a precedent and encouragement for the next, inevitably worse one.
The lack of police intervention in Winnipeg was unforgivable yet entirely predictable, another sad indictment of a two-tier system and of authorities tacitly condoning criminal behaviour, either out of political sympathy or, more likely, fear. The image of a dozen police officers not around the statue, but instead around a single man — a man who happened to be opposing the vandalism — is an immensely powerful one.
Like slavery here and in America, the Canadian Residential Schools controversy is being used as a cover for an all-out assault on the country itself. What a happy coincidence that the man they can blame for the schools also happens to be the country’s first Prime Minister. It took the Americans a bit longer to progress from “just Confederate generals” to reach their founding fathers. But, in fairness, not much longer.
In this activist approach to history there is no room for nuance. Judgement against historical figures is summary, but even more summary is the judgement against us, today. Just as feeling unease at Colston’s toppling damns you as an apologist for slavery, so disagreement with these Canadian iconoclasts automatically means you condone the murder of children. For people to claim this is all helping historical debate is a nonsense.
We live in a global free market of culture with an open border of ideas and it is naïve to think we can insulate ourselves against them
Of course the deaths of these school children are tragically sad. But activists have swiftly written the narrative in a vacuum of facts. We know neither when they died nor how they died. Disease was rife and child mortality rates shockingly high everywhere. The attempt to equate these schools to the gas chambers as a means of systematic genocide is patently false. And attributing blame to distant figureheads like Victoria is wrong and unhelpful. If any crimes were committed, they were committed by individuals. The idea that a whole people, a whole country, history and culture, can be inherently “guilty” is a fallacious and dangerous one.
Like it or not, what happens across the Atlantic is relevant to us here. We live in a global free market of culture with an open border of ideas and it is naïve to think we can insulate ourselves against them.
When attacks are made on figures from Canadian history, everyone is fully aware that these are also figures from British history (or indeed, present, when they come for our Queen). Even though I hope we’ve finished our brief flirtation with mob-driven (if not council-driven) iconoclasm on these shores, our society is just as much the target of these attacks as Canada’s is, and they continue to feed the dangerous narrative that is taking hold.
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