Our History-Warts and All

Brian Giesbrecht, Commentary, Culture Wars

The modern fashion of attempting to rewrite history appears to be gaining ground. Hector Langevin’s name no longer adorns his building in Ottawa, Cornwallis’s statue has been toppled, and the history rewriters are busily taking dead aim at our most famous Canadian of all – John A. MacDonald. The three men stand accused of thinking like men of their time.

But now there is a new twist. The history rewriters are going after one of Canada’s most famous artists. The Art Gallery of Ontario has decided, in its wisdom, to rename a painting done by iconic Canadian artist, Emily Carr. The painting is of a simple white church set in the lush forests of Vancouver Island. Emily Carr titled the painting “Indian Church”.

The gallery worthies seem to be offended by the word “Indian”. Perhaps they are unaware that Canada still has an Act called “The Indian Act”. The fact that the outdated statute would have been gone long ago, if not for the privileged people who benefit monetarily from it, is beside the point. Or what about the description of a few days of beautiful weather in fall as “Indian summer”? That is a lovely phrase – there is nothing offensive about it at all. Or maybe we should tell Pauline Johnson, the much loved Canadian poet – and an Indigenous person herself – that her sensitive and thoughtful poem “Cry of an Indian Wife” is somehow deemed by these outraged historical revisionists, to be a racist poem?

The fact is that although Columbus got it a bit wrong, the word “Indian” has been part of our language and history for more than five hundred years. That is not about to go away.

But for reasons that appear to make sense to these people only, they have removed the title given to the work by the artist, and replaced it with an Indigenous geographical term associated with one of the nearby Indigenous groups, in order to remove what they call a racial insult.

But just a minute here! When one examines anyone’s history, one is bound to find warts. For instance, virtually all Indigenous tribes practiced slavery. On the west coast, slavery was a particularly important part of their culture of most tribes. Ocean trips would be made up and down the coast – as far as California- to forcibly capture slaves. This was part of their history.

No one would deny that slavery is one of the most egregious types of racism. Does it really make sense to substitute one allegedly racist name for another?

During the discussion over renaming the Langevin Building, Senator Murray Sinclair made a very important point when he suggested that rather than tearing down existing statues and renaming buildings, we should consider using the names of important Indigenous people from the past when we build new ones. Then we will be adding to our history, as opposed to trying to revise it after the fact.

Let’s do that. And if it turns out that some of those important people are judged to be less than perfect by the standards of today, let us also remember that we will surely be judged to have been less than perfect by the standards of tomorrow.

It was in Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, that he has The Ministry of Truth rewriting history to coincide with the fascist regime’s current propaganda needs. The Ontario Art Gallery is not this kind of evil entity. I think these are well intentioned people who are trying to do the right thing. But they are not.

Leave Emily Carr’s beautiful painting as it is. And leave our history alone – warts and all.