Censoring Public Symbols

         The names of roads, towns, buildings and clubs surround us with stories. In some places, governments try to have power and control over public spaces and media. According to democracy public spaces should not be controlled or censored, they should be shaped through public discourse, popular opinion and competitive politics.

         The recent removal of the statue of Edward Cornwallis in Halifax, as well as the removal of many confederate monuments in America have sparked debate over public sentiment towards these monuments and whether or not it’s right to remove controversial symbols of history.

Edward Cornwallis was the founder of Halifax and was also known to mistreat native people. He issued a notorious proclamation in 1749 which gave a reward for killing Mi’kmaq people.  Many people have called for the removal of monuments due to their dark history, however many others feel monuments are historical pieces of art and the way they have once been presented to the public is an important part of the story.

          The goal of history is to create the most holistic understanding possible in order to understand the circumstances of our present and future. In a way, the removal of monuments could send a message that these events should be remembered in a different way.  The statues and their stories do not disappear when they are moved. Some monuments are moved to a new space where they can be re-contextualized, however some are stored away from the public eye. Is removing public monuments really the best way to appease public controversies?

Like any government project, the removal and relocation of monuments is a costly affair. Perhaps it would be more positive to invest in the writing of wider and more holistic stories which address controversies, or invest funding into modern groups and organizations to improve the rights and well being of citizens, especially those who have been mistreated.

           The interesting part in cases such as Edward Cornwallis is that monuments are being moved out of respect and in response to public outcry. Whereas the malicious destruction of sentimental belongings, buildings, homes, and artifacts has been an unfortunate occurrence throughout history.The National Capital commission has decided to take this statue down to avoid vandalism and violence.

The purpose of monuments is not only to celebrate the positive parts of history, but also to pay respect to those who have suffered, and to remember stories so we can avoid future suffering. Ideally, critical and inclusive history would be easily accessible to all. The actors and events of history should speak for themselves, and people will continue to judge them based on their own moral standing.

        Carleton University (CU) is named after Guy Carleton. Carleton came from Ireland to serve the military in British North America. He participated in gruesome warfare that killed many people, and trained other people to kill and conquer the ‘enemy’, for the ‘greater good of the nation’. In popular history written by the British empire, he is not condemned as a murderer, his memory is romanticized as working and sacrificing for the nation and the empire.

        When reading about Egerton Ryerson on the government funded website Historica Canada, the fact that the Ryerson University of Toronto, Ontario has been called to be renamed by activists is mentioned in the first paragraph. Egerton Ryerson was born in 1803 in upper Canada and was one of the founders of the public education system in Ontario. Students and activists have called for renaming of the school due to Ryerson’s involvement in the development of residential schools. Does Carleton’s University’s name face a similar threat?

         Carleton lived over 200 years ago, yet his name still appears in hundreds of books, schools, towns and parks all across the country. Despite controversial history of Guy Carleton, CU stands as strong and proud institution, while bearing the name of someone who participated in causing great and inhumane suffering. The truth is, not everyone knows where CU got its name. Perhaps this means CU should make a Guy Carleton history project to show students the history behind the name they wear.

         As time passes the places and institutions named after Carleton will bring new legacies and memories to his name. For most students the name Carleton does not represent a British soldier, it represents passionate professors, classmates and friends.

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