Understanding the Complexity of History

Victoria City Hall - Adrian Lam, Times Colonist.jpg

Victoria, B.C., mayor Lisa Helps has today posted a stout defence of the city council's decision to remove a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald from the steps of city hall. "No one’s erasing anything, but we have to understand the complexity of history," she insists.

She's right. History is complex.

Alas, by her own admission, Ms. Helps failed to imbibe this understanding of the complexity of history during her lengthy tenure as a University of Victoria grad student. "I am ashamed to say that I have an undergraduate degree in Canadian history, a master’s in Canadian history and a half-completed PhD in Canadian history," she avers. "It is not until we began this Witness Reconciliation Program that I learned about the role that Canada’s first prime minister played in developing residential schools."

Read literally, this statement could be construed as a wholesale indictment of the historical profession in Canada, one whose echoes might be expected to reverberate mightily through the hallowed halls of academe. The imagination races with scenes from a Richard Russo novel—emergency departmental meetings, deposed chairs, mandatory curriculum review, the public censure of the scurrilous Canadian historians who concealed the particulars of Sir John A. Macdonald's political career from Ms. Helps at every stage of her academic journey. Clearly, some serious soul-searching is in order here—perhaps not Lindsay-Shepherd serious, but something that at least conveys the impression of gravitas to scandalized Canadians. The problem is obviously systemic. How did we fail her?

Mayor Helps' 2005 M.A. thesis offers some insight on this question. It is a study of vagrancy in Victoria in the late nineteenth century, in which she draws on the work of the French Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre to "deconstruct, or more aptly, to diffract bodies, the public, and space through the lens of the city in order to contribute to the historical project of conceiving bodies, spaces, and the public itself as products of history" (p. 118).

Such opaque theoretical jargon is, of course, music to the ears of the many self-styled progressives who now dominate the humanities in Canadian universities—including, presumably, a sizable contingent of the professional historians who recently ratified the CHA's decision to rename the John A. Macdonald book prize. That Ms. Helps claims to be ashamed by the lacunae in her education may give some of them pause—and so, too, might her apparently genuine but nonetheless Orwellian belief that removing a statue is not an act of erasure. But such semantic trifles are hardly likely to inspire a renaissance in the sort of Canadian political history that would have rounded out Ms. Helps' graduate training or, indeed, to dissuade progressive scholars from cheering her efforts to render non grata the founding prime minister of one of the most successful countries in history.

She's one of them, after all. They groomed her, and had she completed her doctorate it is easy to imagine that she would have been welcomed warmly into their ranks. They feel her shame.