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 the public sentiment towards these monuments and whether or not 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 these monuments due to their dark history, however many others feel these 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 or memorialized 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 perhaps invest funding into modern groups and organizations to improve the rights and well being of citizens, especially those who have been mistreated.
What is interesting in some cases such as Edward Cornwallis is that the monuments are being moved out of respect and in response to public outcry. The destruction sentimental belongings, buildings, homes, artifacts and monuments of nations around the world has been a common event in history. The National Capital commission has decided to take this statue down to avoid vandalism and violence. Ideally, critical and inclusive history would be easily accessible to all members of the population. 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. 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.
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 a methodist minister who is known as 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 the residential school system. 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 complicated and controversial history of the 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 Carleton University got it’s name from or who Guy Carleton is. Perhaps this means the University could 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 many students, the name Carleton does not represent a British soldier, it represents passionate professors, classmates and friends.