On Historical Erasure

Klippert - Calgary Herald.jpg

Canadians have this week borne witness to two examples of historical erasure, one disturbing, the other edifying.

As expected, members of the Canadian Historical Association have voted "overwhelmingly," according to the National Post, to remove Sir John A. Macdonald's name from their most prestigious book prize. Virtue signalling is an overused and hackneyed phrase, but in this case the shoe fits. For professional historians to render Canada's founding prime minister symbolically non grata is evidence of their relentless politicization but also of their increasing insularity and irrelevance. To state what would have been obvious to the many historians who have passed through the CHA since its founding in 1922, the preservation of Macdonald's reputation as Canada's foremost English-speaking nation-builder does not require that historians defend his every policy or utterance. It requires only grit, a sense of proportion, and a willingness to let the past be the past. On all counts the CHA has failed abjectly.

On the brighter side, the Canadian Senate yesterday passed Bill C-66, which expunges the criminal records of men convicted for homosexual acts before those acts were decriminalized. Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson is covering the story, rightly characterizing the bill's passage into law as a triumph of Pierre Trudeau's reforms in the Sixties, Justin Trudeau's apology to the LGBTQ community last year, and countless unsung acts of courage from gay-rights activists in the half-century in between. Ibbitson notes that the Globe has itself played a leading role in the struggle, particularly by exposing the historic injustice suffered by Everett George Klippert (pictured above), whose conviction in 1965 for "gross indecency" put the reform process in motion. Modesty prevents Ibbitson from identifying himself as the Globe's point-person on this file, but he deserves a special vote of thanks from all Canadians. Well done, John.

It should be obvious that expunging the criminal records of gay men does not airbrush history in the sense that blackening the name of Sir John A. Macdonald does. That Klippert and others who suffered as he did should be pardoned and ultimately compensated represents true progress in a liberal, rights-based society like Canada's. Blacklisting the founding PM of one of the most successful countries in history because his nineteenth-century views do not accord with those of twenty-first-century historians does no such thing.