An Armchair Mayor editorial by Mel Rothenburger.
HOW FAR should we go in erasing recognition of those who played a role in wrongs and perceived wrongs of the past? At what point does it become tantamount to rewriting history?
Recently, a 16-foot bronze statue of American Civil War General Robert E. Lee was removed from its place of honour high above a street in New Orleans, where it had stood since 1884.
Lee is known as an exceptional soldier and military tactician. He didn’t want the war, nor did he support the secession of the south.
Biographers disagree on whether Lee supported or opposed slavery, though he certainly fought for an unjust cause.
Regardless, his statue is said to have been erected not in defense of slavery but as a tribute to Lee’s military genius and role in reconciliation after the war. Yet it became a symbol of enduring racial injustice in the U.S., and demands to take it down eventually won out.
We have our own version of the Robert E. Lee controversy in B.C. The Law Society of B.C. has agreed to remove a statue of Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie from its lobby in Vancouver at the behest of First Nations because of his role in the Chilcotin War.
The “war” was really an extended skirmish that took place in 1864 after a war chief and his followers brutally slaughtered 20 people, including my great-great-grandfather Donald McLean, who was second in command of the force sent to apprehend them.
Begbie convicted six chiefs of murder, and they were hanged. The convictions and punishment were appropriate given the crimes and the legal system of the day, but over time they became symbolic of injustices by colonial society towards First Nations, the Tsilhquot’n in particular.
The six men who were hanged are now regarded by the Tsilhquot’in as heroic defenders of their territory, though a close examination of the facts paints a much more complicated picture, to say the least. Even a Canadian Press story about the removal of the statue stated that Begbie “wrongfully convicted” the chiefs, which is simply not the case.
Until now, at least, Begbie has been a much-respected figure in B.C. history, but his remarkable career doesn’t matter in the context of the movement to erase reminders of the unpleasant parts of the province’s past. The Law Society says it decided to remove Begbie from the lobby as a way to address “colonial symbolism” and as a commitment to the principles of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Even getting rid of his statue isn’t enough for the Tsilquot’in Nation, which wants the provincial government to remove Begbie’s name from all public places.
Presumably, that would include a statue of him in Begbie Square in New Westminister, as well as streets, commemorative plaques, historical markers and changing the names of Sir Matthew Begbie Elementary school in Vancouver and Mount Begbie in the Cariboo, Begbie Creek, Begbie Falls and Begbie Trail.
A couple of years ago, Premier Christy Clark declared the convicted chiefs “fully exonerated.” I happen to disagree with that, but I recognize the need for a broader conversation about how we deal with historical sensitivities.
Surely we can find a way to tell all sides of the story in an appropriate manner and continue the journey towards reconciliation without altering historical fact and eradicating monuments.