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.

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