Tag Archives: society

Sir John A.

Because of a statue in Victoria, the controversy over John A. Macdonald, first Prime Minister of Canada, is back in the news again. Living in Ottawa, of course, Macdonald is unavoidable; I drive to work most days on a parkway bearing his name, and it has been somewhat of a tradition for me to eat my post-race breakfast in a pub named after him each fall. When I was in high school, my history teacher made a character out of Macdonald, told us funny stories about him, and I left for university thinking of him as an appropriate figure for the first Canadian Prime Minister: an ambitious politician, sure, but also a cantankerous Scot with rather too much fondness for the booze.

I hadn’t learned about the residential schools, then, and Louis Riel was simply framed as ‘traitor’; our strange little Canadian moment of rebellion, come and gone, shorn of wider meanings. I retold those funny stories, many times, to people who asked me about Canada. I got laughs in the pub, reinforced my own impression of Canadian history as a more or less whimsical tale about a basically harmless country. I would not tell those stories now, and I’m glad I went on learning.

Since then, Macdonald has been reassessed, in divergent ways. In relatively recent years (it seems to me, although I am not an expert on Canadian historiography) he’s been given a boost, from certain quarters, to promote his role as father of the nation and make him our equivalent to Washington (who, of course, also has a lot that lies beneath the national myth). The name everyone knows, the ubiquitous figure who we credit with bringing the place we call home into being. It was such efforts that got his name on that parkway I drive on, which was simply the Ottawa River Parkway until 2012. A certain kind of national pride, or nationalism, demands heroes, and so Macdonald was built up.

Gradually, I have learned more about the varied parts of his legacy (both in and out of classrooms), and I (like, I imagine, many Canadians) have come to see him as hitting quite wide of the mark of heroism. It’s fair to say that our first Prime Minister’s greatest flaw was not hitting the bottle a bit much, it was that he was a racist. I would never deny his influence and importance in the Canadian story (you’d have to be wilfully dishonest to do so), but he’s no hero of mine. As more and more voices have insisted on telling this part of the story, so has come the pressure to take those statues down.

It’s interesting (as I read on the CBC) that Scotland is also reconsidering Macdonald, removing references to him from government websites. Like the removal of the statues, no doubt this has raised at least a few cries of ‘erasure’, although quieter than here; Macdonald is far from as big a deal to the Scots as he is to Canada. As Nahlah Ayed reminded me in the article, there isn’t even a problematic statue of Macdonald in Edinburgh to worry about taking down. (And honestly, such is my national inferiority complex that when I was there this summer, it didn’t even occur to me that there would be.)

Erasure is something that I think any historian, or lover of history, must surely oppose. Pretending that things that happened, never did, or that people who existed, never did, is always harmful. That is how we come to believe in lies, and that is how we fail to learn anything useful from our history. We need to remember and study every part of it, even (and maybe especially) the parts we find distasteful. Failures, missteps, bad ideas, need to be examined so that we can understand how they came to pass, and we must reach those conclusions honestly. If you ask me, I will never be in favour of tearing out one single page from the book of our history. I might, however, be very much in favour of writing that page over again.

The Scottish government, as it happens, says the articles have been taken down to be rewritten, as Macdonald’s legacy is reassessed. It’s not a failure to reassess and reconsider what we think about our past and the people who came before us. That is probably the one thing that will never change about history: that we keep changing how we see it, how we tell that story. Heck, that’s part of why historians continue to work, because the stories have worn out, need patching, darning, and retelling.

I’m not a Canadian history expert – far from it – but it’s clear that Macdonald did and does need to be reassessed, his story rewritten. He was not just the (fairly nakedly ambitious) ‘Father of Confederation’, he was also among the architects of the brutal system of residential schools through which cultural genocide was practiced upon the First Nations people who came under Canadian authority. To tell his story otherwise, dishonest. A carefully upholstered national myth that presumably offers comfort to some even as it ignores the suffering of others, and the historian’s first duty: the truth. So, reassess Macdonald, tell the truth about him unapologetically and clearly.

But, what about those statues. Is removing a statue an act of erasure? Would renaming that parkway I drive on be one? This is a debate that widens out beyond Macdonald: the Canadian government recently took the name ‘Langevin’ off of one of our Parliamentary buildings, due to Hector Louis-Langevin’s own involvement with residential schools. And, of course, there is the ongoing controversy to the south about Confederate monuments, about which I wrote about on the blog a while back. To take these plaques and statues and titles away, is that erasure?

Of course it is not. We do not learn history, or should not learn history, based on what monuments are up in the world around us. Monuments are erected, most of the time, to figures who were in a particular moment considered ‘great’, but history must not be only the story of the great. It must be the story of the ordinary and the unregarded just as much if it is really to inform us about the people who lived before we did, and what that means for us. History will ever be the story of protagonists, surely, because it seems we cannot resist a good tale and most tales work best with a hero, or a heroine, but it must have its fools and villains just as much, and we need to hear about them just as clearly as we do the people who we decide to put up a statue for.

A statue, a monument, in the symbolism we operate under, says ‘this is a thing we take pride in. Yes, even war memorials, because we take pride in the courage and the sacrifice of those people in defense of country and ideology. So, to have a statue of Macdonald is not simply to say ‘there was a man named John A. Macdonald’, it is to say ‘this man, we admire’. (In a museum, where we might feasibly present a nuanced picture of a person, along with an image in bronze, the situation is rather different, and perhaps that is the compromise) It is surely not so great a leap of imagination to consider how that feels to people whose family suffered in a residential school, who do not know the language of their people because of policies that sought its eradication, who grew up in poverty and peril because that was all the government left them.

Macdonald cannot be erased from Canadian history, but we do not need to declare, publicly and loudly, that he is among our heroes. He should not be, if we mean any part of the ‘Canadian identity’ we are so bold to declare. Students of Canadian history, and Canadians in general, should of course still learn about John A. Macdonald. It would be lunacy not to. However, they should learn about who he really was and especially what he really did, not some imagined and carefully tailored figure we create because we want our own Washington (although, again) a benevolent or heroic ‘father’ to the nation.

It’s not a question of ‘feeling guilty’, either; no-one wants more empty gestures and I don’t think it’s fair to say that Canadians today are culpable for what Macdonald and people like him did. But. Recognizing the truth about the birth of the country in which we live, how those policies and decisions played out down the years for generations of people, and how they continue to affect the very real conditions that people live in and grapple with today, is very important. Canada, whatever else is true about it, was forged from great injustices done to the people who already lived here before Europeans rolled in. There is no chance of really reconciling with their descendants and creating a right and just solution to that central problem if we cannot even recognize that the problem exists.

Part of that recognition is, yes, admitting that John A. Macdonald was not a great guy. We need very much to have a conversation about that, about what it means and what we should probably do about it. Pretending Macdonald didn’t exist is not (or should not) be the aim. Coming to grips with what he really meant must be.

The statues should come down. We could find a better name for that parkway.

And we must remember, all of it.

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I was not expecting a UFO controversy. I really, truly thought that we had had our last flurry of UFO excitement (in North America anyway) in the 90s with the black triangles and all that was immortalized in the X-Files. In more recent years the only time ‘aliens’ seemed to enter the popular consciousness was that meme with the guy with the crazy haircut on History Channel.

And then this week. Revelations of a(nother) U.S. government investigation into UFOs during the 2000s. A pretty wild video of … something, apparently shot by aircrews from the USS Nimitz. Speculation that this is all a shell game being played to distract public attention away from Trump. It’s the Good Old Days again.

The Good Old Days are really pretty old, of course – UFOs in the sense we usually think of them (things that might be alien spacecraft, in general usage) (the term, not the spacecraft) go back to the mystery airships of the 1890s*, some of which were indeed interpreted as extraterrestrial craft. There was a big surge of interest in the 1950s and 1960s, coinciding (I would hazard) both with the Space Race and the appearance of genuinely very different looking aircraft in the skies. Then that other surge in the 80s and 90s.

Basically, the idea of there being Strange Stuff in the sky that might be something really quite remarkable seems to be one that we keep coming back to, collectively. We leave it for a while, and then after some time passes, for whatever reason we pick it up again.

It’s interesting to me that the UFO question still keeps grabbing us, after so many other mysteries and myths (Bermuda Triangle, Loch Ness Monster, Sasquatch) have fallen increasingly aside. I guess part of it is that UFOs do still exist in that ‘maybe’ space where it’s just about possible that there’s something weird going on, while for a lot of other things our expanding reach has closed off the avenues of possibility. That Nimitz video is pretty weird. It could be something.

I think part of it too is that the UFO question hooks into one of our broader, probably species-wide wonderings: are we alone? Are we everything in this universe? Is there more, out there? Especially as Western society has become more and more atheist, if we’re looking for something beyond ourselves and our society and perhaps greater than ourselves and our society, we’ve gotta look off-planet, because we’ve sort of eliminated the other options, intellectually.

And it is an important, interesting question – is there other life, other than what’s on this rock? What would it be like if there was, and what would it be like if it came to visit? The very wide range of very different answers people have to this question – from ‘nothing’ to ‘space friends who want to help us’ to ‘inscrutable intellects who want to use us as lab animals’ – is fascinating, and has of course been the fodder for very many wonderful SFF stories.

We’d like to know what’s out there. We can’t go ourselves, so we imagine the sorts of things that might come to us instead, to visit, to teach, to torment, or to conquer. There’s probably a lot to be gleaned from the different types of aliens we imagine, and the different types of encounters we envision.

The UFO/government (and maybe especially U.S. government) connection in particular I think twangs another part of our understanding (or imagining) of the society we have built, here in the West. Since the 1960s or so, there’s a current of thought that the government can be relied on to be up to no good – with a certain amount of evidence in support of that feeling! When you see the things that governments really have done, and you’re maybe already thinking about alien visitors, it’s not much of a reach to think of the government in league with interests opposed to our own, on a planetary rather than class-based scale.

Anyway, I’m watching this latest wave of UFO-ery with glee and interest. I would dearly love for there to be something remarkable, exceptional, and wonderful happening Up There. Those are the kind of stories I enjoy, after all, and it would be fun to have that be one that comes true. Probably.

I’m not sure that if I had set out to write a less Christmas-y/holiday-themed post that I could have done much better than the above. I hope you all enjoy time with friends and family and get some time to rest and recuperate from all this strange old world keeps hucking at us. I’m gonna try to do some writing. Thanks for reading.

*-I know you can find stuff going back much, much further than that, although it’s not always entirely clear that the weird stuff in the sky is being interpreted as we do today, so I simplified a bit.

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I don’t put very much political content up here because I know that is not what most of the people who come to read this thing are here for.  This is an exception.

The other day I was watching an old Doctor Who episode, ‘Horror of Fang Rock’, which is my favorite, in part because my favorite companion, Leela is such a tremendous badass in it.  There’s a point where things are going badly where she says ‘The creature has got into the lighthouse.  Now we must fight for our lives.’

I thought of that this morning.

I see a lot of ‘you’re worrrying too much’ and ‘oh well’ posted around already and I wish I could feel that way. I have friends in the U.S. who have to worry because their rights are about to come under attack. If you think it won’t happen you didn’t pay very much attention to what the man and his supporters have been saying.  If you’re black, or Muslim, or LGBTQ, or a woman in America, if you’re an immigrant, your new leader made a bunch of promises to do awful things to you, and your country told him to go ahead.

This isn’t just ‘Oh Bush won instead of Gore’ or even ‘Well Harper instead of Ignatieff’, where the government is going to make a bunch of decisions you won’t like but life will be more or less the same.  If the new president does even half the things he said he would do America will not be the same.  I know politicians make promises and don’t keep them all the time.  Most of the time, the promises are not like this.  He has promised deportation forces and punishment for abortions and things I thought I would never hear any serious political candidate say.  For a historian, the parallels are as obvious as they are chilling and I hope I will be as wrong about them as all the pollsters were in the run up to last night.

I find it genuinely scary, and I don’t have to live there.  If you’re horrified like I am, though, now is not the time to give up on the things we believe are true.  There are people who are really in danger and we need to help them however we can.  We need to push twice as hard for the causes we think are right and be as unapologetic about it as this guy who was backed by the KKK just was.  I still believe what Jack Layton said, that love is stronger than hate, but love has to be strong to win.  Hate evidently is.

As much as I can, I’m gonna be there for people who are scared and don’t feel safe under this new reality that has dropped on them.  I don’t know how much help I can be, but I’m gonna try.  If you’re upset about America’s new president, please try to do the same.  People really are going to need it.

I’m profoundly grateful to live in Canada, with the awareness that we’re far from immune from the hate. If we really like our (relatively) progressive society, “It is time for us to fight”.

I’m in.

(For the little bit it’s worth, Leela’s ‘Finished! I did it.’ after the monster is killed is a scene I am also trying to keep in mind this morning)
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Abdirahman Abdi

Ok, so I have said several times in the past that this is a writing blog and that’s what it is going to stay, and that I know (or think I know) that those of you who read this don’t come here for my ideas on politics or morals or whatever else. However, last week something happened in my home city that I feel very strongly about, and after Orlando I also wrote here that I was going to try not to stay safely silent on such issues any longer, and so here we are. I’m going to write about an issue I think is an important one today, and if you absolutely don’t want to read it I both respect your choice and promise that I’ll be back to writing about the odd things my brain does next week.

The thing is that the police killed a man in Ottawa last week. That seems like an overly dramatic phrase but it is the unvarnished truth. They came to arrest him, most accounts agree that he tried to escape, and most accounts also agree that he was punched, pepper sprayed, and beaten with a baton. It’s not clear exactly when he died, although some reports – which I have not seen directly contradicted – say that he was dead 45 minutes before he got to hospital. The man’s name was Abdirahman Abdi. He did not have a weapon.

We are told, by various authorities, that we must all keep our thinking relevant to this matter on pause until the Special Investigations Unit is done investigating and releases its conclusions. However, as Desmond Cole pointed out in the Citizen yesterday, although we do need to wait for the wheels to turn on any legal consequences, it is ridiculous to say that we shouldn’t think anything yet, and cannot yet say that anything is wrong. Among other things, as we are frequently reminded by the verdicts from courts here and elsewhere, there is ever a significant difference between what is legal and what is right.

And it seems so very clear that what happened to Abdirahman Abdi was not right. Before we get to any other issues, one very basic, and it seems to me inescapable, conclusion is that if the police cannot take a single unarmed suspect into custody without killing him, then we have a serious problem. The night Abdirahman Abdi died, the chief of Ottawa’s police was on TV saying that his officers receive training in ‘de-escalation’ and resolving situations peacefully, as though that settled matters. However, that only leaves more disturbing problems, because if these officers received such training, and the training was good, then they should have been able to make their arrest without loss of life. But Abdirahman Abdi still died. Is it more disturbing to think that police are not being properly prepared, or that they are prepared, but choose to ignore what they are taught? Neither is acceptable. Even if the officers are legally exonerated, what happened was clearly not right, and we need to confront that and respond to it.

And of course there are more issues enmeshed with this one. Abdirahman Abdi is described in most reports as ‘mentally ill’ (I have not seen a specific diagnosis), and so we return to the question of how police, and our society in general, deal with and hopefully take care of people with mental difficulties. Not very well. Last week we also saw a verdict (now under appeal) in the trial of a Toronto police officer who shot another young man with a mental illness. We haven’t, it seems, learned much since then It is often said that police are not social workers, and that it is not in their remit to handle such people gently. However, as Nicole Ireland’s article for the CBC pointed out last week, this is a perspective we can’t afford to accept. Officers can’t be psychologists, but if they’re meant to interact and intervene with the public in a meaningful and useful way, then knowing that in some situations pointing a gun and shouting commands won’t be effective and may make things work is knowledge they need. We must insist on it. Everyone knows it is a super difficult job that most of us couldn’t do, but it’s not good enough to say ‘tough job, things gonna happen.’ Police are supposed to be our helpers and advocates and protectors, they are the ones sanctioned to use force in our society. We need to insist that they fill these roles carefully and with empathy and with respect and with consideration. Anything else must be unacceptable. Last week something went terribly, irretrievably wrong, and that must be unacceptable too.

And of course there is yet one more issue at least, because Abdirahman Abdi was black. Now, the head of Ottawa’s police union was on the radio last week saying that it is ‘inappropriate’ to suggest that race may have played a part in how this incident played out to its ghastly conclusion, but this is a ludicrous thing to say. To say that, in light of all that has happened to visible minorities at the hands of police in recent days and weeks and months, is either wilful blindness or simply one of the most unrealistic things I have ever heard. To expect anyone, especially members of minority communities, not to wonder if race played a part in how the police reacted to Abdirahman Abdi, in their decision to use force on him, and in how he was treated afterwards, is simply divorced from common sense. Again, last week we saw all charges dropped in the case of Freddie Gray, a black man who died in the custody of Baltimore police, with a severed spine that (apparently) no-one is responsible for. Time and time again we see these cases, we get the same assurances, and – it seems – nothing changes. The questions the police find ‘inappropriate’ are asked because they have, as yet, received no satisfactory answer. They will continue to be asked until one is forthcoming, and especially until the dying stops. Possibly Abdirahman Abdi’s race had nothing to do with what happened to him, but of course people will ask the question, and given our recent bloody history, we are likely to doubt that it didn’t without compelling evidence to the contrary. To do otherwise would be, to say the least, inappropriate. We are told today that the SIU may not consider whether race was a factor in what happened to Abdirahman Abdi. That seems crazy to me, because the rest of the community will and is considering just that. We have to. We need to.

It is often far too easy for us (or at least me) to sit here in Canada and watch what happens in the United States and think ‘well that’s there, not here’, and to think that we don’t have such problems here. I shouldn’t think that, given what people from visible minorities say about their experience with police here in Canada, and Abdirahman Abdi’s death is a stark reminder that the problems of use of force by police, and how police react to and against visible minorities are our problems too, and of our own racial divisions, that we like to pretend don’t exist or aren’t meaningful. There was already plenty of evidence of this from the many cases of how people from First Nations communities have been abused by officers who were supposed to protect them from harm. We can’t pretend that these problems are safely south of the border or overseas, they are here at home and Canadians must confront them and grapple with them. It may take away some of our comfortable illusions, but people are suffering so it doesn’t matter, and in the end we will be better for it.

That’s one of the main reasons that I don’t like the ‘wait and see’ response from authorities here. However the legal issues around Abdirahman Abdi’s death are eventually determined, it was terrible and sad and wrong and we should have a sense of urgency in our response to it. That happened on a community level, but it would be good to see it from our political and civic leaders as well. Jim Watson, our mayor who I am generally a fan of, has not displayed his usual vigorous response this time. When someone parked in a bus lane and caused a traffic jam he immediately ordered a parking crackdown; when it was revealed on Twitter that OC Transpo directed its bus drivers to stop in bike lanes for timing stops, he publicly shamed them and ordered the practice to cease. When someone got in his face about flying the Pride flag at city hall, he flatly told them he didn’t want their vote. It would be great if that Jim Watson had shown up demanding action and answers, but instead he issued a rather bland statement of condolence and said nothing else. Again, there’s a difference between waiting for the legal process to run (which we must do) and simply doing nothing (which I think we must not do). It’s okay, and I think important, to point out the things that the death of Abdirahman Abdi shows us are not right in our city and our country and our society, and to point the way towards change. That’s leadership, or would be.

There are so many issues attached to this one awful moment. It’s like some kind of prism that casts a terrible light no matter how you turn it. It has revealed, or freshly illuminated, a great many problems. I don’t pretend to know what the solutions to all these problems are; I wish that I did. I do know that at a minimum wrongs and abuses in our society need to be pointed out and we need to insist that they are not okay and that change happens. What happened to Abdirahman Abdi was not okay. Whatever the issues were that lead to his death, there has to be change to prevent it happening again, in Ottawa or elsewhere. We can’t just call it a tragedy and end up saying that things are fine as they are: they aren’t or an unarmed man would not have died on a sidewalk.

We need especially to listen to the people from communities who find themselves mistreated by authorities. We mustn’t try to silence them or to reassure ourselves by pretending that what they are saying cannot be true or that it doesn’t matter. Our fellow human beings are telling us that they don’t feel safe, that they feel under attack in the place that is supposed to be their home and that they don’t feel able to trust the people who they are told to look to for protection. We need to hear them and believe them and do what we can to make it better. I believe them, and I know there has to be change on their behalf, and for Abdirahman Abdi.

I’m not sure if writing this was helpful in any tangible way, but I feel better for having written it. Thanks for reading.

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