09 June 2015

The TRC report and the Langevin Bridge—what's in a name?

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report has issued a damning condemnation of the Indian residential schools, referring to their history as "cultural genocide." Reverberations are being felt across the country, including here in Calgary. For example, a question has risen about the Langevin Bridge and Langevin School, and whether or not they should be renamed.

They both honour Sir Hector-Louis Langevin, one of the Fathers of Confederation. The Langevin Block on Parliament Hill is also named after him. Langevin, as Secretary of State for the Provinces, played an important role in establishing the Indian residential schools. He claimed, "If you wish to educate the children you must separate them from their parents during the time they are being taught. If you leave them in the family they may know how to read and write, but they will remain savages ... by separating them ... they acquire the habits and tastes…of civilized people.”

To be fair, Langevin did not appear to be a racist. For instance, he lobbied against the hanging of Louis Riel. The commission's choice of "cultural genocide" seems appropriate in his case.

Calgarians are torn over the issue. Former Calgary historian laureate Harry Sanders observes, “You could make an intellectual case for maintaining history and everything that’s embodied in it, for good and for bad. History isn’t a celebration, it’s an analysis. But, on the other hand, it’s deeply hurtful to those who have suffered to have this name.”

My own inclination if to leave the name. When we name sites after public figures we honour them because of they're contribution to the public good, not because they are saints, and Langevin was, after all, responsible for the bridge.

If we renamed sites because their namesakes committed sins, we would be renaming most of our public places. For example, there is a Winston Churchill High School in Calgary. But Churchill was a racist. When defending his view that a Jewish state should be established in Palestine, he was asked what was to become of the Palestinians and answered, "I do not admit... that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia... by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race... has come in and taken its place." His attitude toward "lower grade" races is at least as contemptible as Langevin's attitude toward "lower grade" cultures. Should we, therefore, change the name of this school?

Or what about the suffragette Nellie McClung, one of the "famous five" who campaigned  to have women considered persons and therefore eligible to sit in the Senate. McClung was a supporter of eugenics (as was Churchill) and in fact her promotion of sterilization was vital to the passage of Alberta's detestable eugenics legislation. Should we, then, remove her statue from in front of City Hall along with two other members of the famous five, Emily Murphy and Irene Parlby, who also supported eugenics? These women were giants in the struggle for women's rights and child welfare, but they were not saints.

I believe people deserve to be recognized for the good they do regardless of their imperfections, just as they must be judged for the wrong they do regardless of the good. If a man, or woman, is simply evil, that's another matter—I'm not about to condone a Hitler Avenue or a Stalin Street. But Langevin, like Churchill and McClung, was not a bad person. He was a man of his time, puffed up with a European sense of cultural superiority. I wager he would hold very different views today and that, perhaps, is the test.

Rewriting history to clean up its messiness is not an honest pursuit. Better to accept the truth no matter how unpalatable. So Langevin Bridge it is and Langevin Bridge it should remain.

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