Symbolic acts don't equal change - Keith Roulston editorial
Reading about the debate of the inappropriateness of the Blyth street currently called Gypsy Lane, I can’t help thinking at how appalled the woman who led the campaign to adopt that name back in the 1970s would be to see how her actions are being interpreted today.
At a time when we probably hadn’t yet invented the term “politically-correct”, that woman was one of the most politically correct people I knew. I’m sure she meant to honour people, not insult them, when she lobbied to change the name Wilson Street to Gypsy Lane to recall the visits of Roma traders (we wouldn’t have known what Roma meant back then).
Now the name she persuaded the community and village council to accept is an embarrassment and insult that, critics say, will ruin the village’s reputation by making people judge Blyth as a racist community.
Yet in changing the name, unless we change it to Roma Road, we will also wipe these people from the history of the village and make our past seem even more “white bread” than it was.
But that’s the danger anyone faces by advocating action based on what’s considered acceptable – even laudable – today but may be condemned in years to come. The good deeds of people are forgotten but they are blamed for doing what they thought was best at the time.
Egerton Ryerson is useful today only as a symbol to be punished for the sins of the country, as witnessed by the recent toppling of his statue in Toronto. Until recent years, he had been regarded as a great reformer who gave Ontario a superior, universal and free education system. But then attention turned to an 1847 report he wrote on Indigenous education for the Assistant Superintendent General of Indian Affairs that would become the model upon which residential schools were established beginning in 1883, a year after Ryerson had died.
From our modern view, the proposal to take Indigenous children away from their parents and house them at a distant school where their “Indianess” would be erased is easily understood as cruel, racist and cultural genocide and is a black mark against Ryerson’s reputation, even if he thought he was helping natives.
He was not responsible, however, for most of the horrors we think of when we think of residential schools – the beatings, the cruelty, the sexual molestations and the deaths – but those who perpetrated these horrors are long gone, so he’ll substitute for evil they committed. His statue must be defaced, pulled from its pedestal, his head smashed by hammer-wielding protesters and later stuck on a pike at a Six Nations of the Grand River land protest site. In coming days his name will no doubt be erased from the university that was named to honour him for the advanced education system he built. (Full disclosure: I am a graduate of that university.)
Sir John A. Macdonald is also now remembered for his role in residential schools. In the new light, even our first Prime Minister’s “accomplishments” such as Confederation, and building the CPR are seen as stealing Indigenous lands.
Writing recently in The Globe and Mail, columnist Andrew Coyne pointed out that demonizing Ryerson and MacDonald lets the rest of us off the hook. Later Prime Ministers from Sir Wilfrid Laurier to Sir Robert Borden to Mackenzie King are not in the firing line even though the worst of the atrocities in the residential schools took place on their watch. Ordinary Canadians conveniently looked the other way, concentrating on improving the comforts in their own lives while Indigenous children suffered and died.
After a young white man, filled with anti-Muslim hate, ran down and killed a Muslim family in London out for an evening walk, former Progressive Conservative candidate Jeff Bennett came forward with an apology for not speaking out against such hate. As a candidate in the 2014 provincial election, Bennett had knocked on doors in North London, where the family was murdered, and had people express how glad they were that he was a change from the former candidate, who was Muslim. He’d simply thanked them for support, Bennett said, when he should have confronted them over their prejudice.
Similarly, when I was in university I shared a room with a student from northwestern Ontario who frequently slammed “drunken Indians” and made other racial slurs. I was embarrassed, but I never confronted him about his racism. I had to live with him, I conveniently told myself.
Smashing the head of Egerton Ryerson, removing statues of our country’s founder and changing offending names of streets, from Dundas St. to Gypsy Lane, are the simple, symbolic steps. To make real change we must make it uncomfortable for those with racist views, even if it means being uncomfortable ourselves.