Opinion: Remembrance is about adding to the historical record, not cancelling it

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We live in an odd era where some cancel or attack historical figures on the justification they were not perfect and therefore should be expunged from the record. Case in point? In 2021, someone threw red paint on the Edmonton statue of Sir Winston Churchill. In the United Kingdom in 2020, the Churchill statue outside Parliament was boxed up to prevent more attacks after vandals spray-painted that Churchill “was a racist” across the plinth.

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In Canada, statues of our own historical figures have been attacked or removed over the past decade. That includes ones of John A. Macdonald in Hamilton, Victoria and Montreal, of Queen Victoria in Winnipeg, and of British Columbia’s first Supreme Court Justice Matthew Begbie.

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Churchill has a legacy as the statesman who, almost alone, warned the world for a decade about the dangers of Adolf Hitler and his genocidal German Nazis. Churchill was ignored and shunned for doing so. He was also, as prime minister, key to defeating the Axis powers.

Specific to Churchill, the vandalism is regrettable because it — and those who downplay its importance — makes the mistake of demanding a historical figure exactly reflect someone’s views today, and that anything less means Churchill or other critical figures in history should be “cancelled.”

We disagree. Lest we forget, without Churchill and his bloody-minded refusal to consider surrendering to the Nazis, it is entirely likely other British politicians would have surrendered or concluded another disgraceful treaty with Hitler, akin to what then-prime minister Neville Chamberlain agreed to in 1938.

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Criticisms of Churchill are often based on myths, such as the false notion he was responsible for or did nothing about the wartime famine in Bengal. (Historian Zareer Masani decisively rebutted this in his article, Churchill and the Genocide Myth.) Or they assume a man with 19th-century views on imperialism should be cancelled precisely because he was born in the 19th century.

But we can honour and celebrate history’s fighters despite views we now find distasteful or the mistakes they made. We, too, have views and flaws that future generations will no doubt think odd or condemn. The proper way to remember history is to add to it, rather than subtract from it as cancel culture too often does.

Consider some examples of Indigenous service to Canada that deserve to be remembered:

Alex Decoteau hailed from the Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. He was a member of the 1912 Canadian Olympic Team in Stockholm and was a runner in the First World War. He was killed by a sniper’s bullet shortly before his 30th birthday and was buried in Passchendaele New British Cemetery in Belgium, and was given a traditional Cree ceremony in 1985.

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Oliver Milton Martin was a Mohawk of the Six Nations Grand River. He served in both world wars, ending his service in 1944 with the rank of brigadier. During the Second World War, he commanded multiple infantry brigades and was the officer in charge of training hundreds of recruits for overseas combat. After the war, Martin took up various occupations, eventually becoming a provincial magistrate in Ontario. He was the first Indigenous person appointed to such a position in the province, serving until his death in 1957.

Mary Greyeyes Reid was a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation. She was the first Indigenous woman to enlist in the Canadian Army and served in the Second World War. She was sent overseas to England and continued working in London until 1946 when she was discharged. After returning home, she helped call for full voting rights for Indigenous Canadians.

We do not cancel past heroes because they do not fit current expectations. We remember Churchill’s bravery and courage as he led the Commonwealth toward victory. We remember Canada’s soldiers, including the Indigenous who were denied voting rights, yet still responded to the call to service.

We remember them all, not because they were perfect or fit a modern mould, but because their sacrifices and courage helped further the freedoms we enjoy today.

Mark Milke is the president of the Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy and also of the Sir Winston Churchill Society of Calgary.

Kelvyn van Esch is Mohawk and served in the Canadian Armed Forces Reserve.

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