Right in the Centre - Learning from the past


By Ken Wadddell

Neepawa Banner & Press

I have often said and written words to this effect. “The past is great place to visit but it’s a poor place to live.” Horrible things happened in the past and obviously horrible things are happening today. There are practical solutions that include discussions, reconciliation and actions. Tearing down statues and defacing historic buildings isn’t a solution.

Every time a statue is defaced, taken down or destroyed, we as a society lose a teaching opportunity. The United States is going through a very uncomfortable time and it seems there are those who are intent on the idea that taking down a statue is the way to heal wounds. It is more likely a poor attempt to salve society’s conscience. Taking down a statue doesn’t fix historical wrongs or avenge past injustices. It can’t restore a lost life, nor can it heal past hurts.

What needs to happen is to teach the history, and yes, the context within which a statue or monument was erected. Why was that person honoured and revered? What did they accomplish? What good things, if any, did they do? What wrong things did they do? Note, I did not add the phrase, “if any” to the wrongs list, as there aren’t any people of history that did no wrong. (Jesus did no wrong, but we will leave that debate for another day.)

There are individual people, councils and boards in the United States, Canada and England that are intent on the notion that if we take down statues of leaders that somehow the era they represented, the wars they fought or the causes they promoted will somehow all be made lovely and pleasant. It’s nonsense. Statues and monuments were erected to honour the achievements of leaders. They need to stay in place so we can learn from their lives, the good, the bad and the ugly. Removing the statues and monuments does nothing to correct the evils of the past. Learning the history will help to avoid the same mistakes happening again.

Then there is the question of where do you start and where do you stop? If the statues of General Robert E. Lee and Columbus have to go, then the list will be endless. Statues of George Washington will have to go, as he was a slave owner. The statues of Lincoln have to go too. Lincoln is credited with freeing  the slaves. He also presided over the hanging of over 30 First Nations men after they rose up against the settlers in the 1860s in Minnesota. In fairness, the FN people felt their land was being stolen, some of them were being starved out and many settlers were killed in the uprising. In Canada, does Laurier’s statue have to go as he was very unfair to Chinese immigrants? Does MacDonald’s statue have to go because of his policies on immigration and his treatment of First Nations people? Does Riel’s statue have to go because under his command, several people were killed? Do we have to tear down the Canadian Museum of Human Rights because there are alleged human rights violations within the administration of that building? Do schools named after Laurier, MacDonald or Cecil Rhodes need to be renamed?

The purging and destruction of statues, monuments and names does nothing to fix the past. It only serves as a distraction to historical study and evaluation. In the simplest terms, it is a temporary venting of anger, when that anger needs to become solid action for the future.

People with real issues are getting sidetracked from real needs by foolish actions. Tearing down statues does nothing to advance the very real social causes that have always needed more attention and always will. (Neither does looting, burning and stealing.) Learning about history, different cultures and purposely learning to reach out to each other will actually improve everyone’s life. 

We have way too many problems of the day to dwell in the past. We have pandemics to fight and control. We have poverty to address, dreadful housing issues to solve and economic questions to fix. We need to learn from the past and move on. Let’s learn from past guilt and deal with today’s guilt so we can eliminate poverty through economic growth, starve out the drug dealers and learn to love one another. Yes, love one another, not just tolerate each other.

Disclaimer: The writer serves as a volunteer chair of the Manitoba Community Newspaper Association. The views expressed in this column are the writer’s personal views and are not to be taken as being  the view of the MCNA board or Banner & Press staff.