Globe and Mail
I have an old-school map I found in a junk store, framed and hanging in my dining room. It’s undated, but the clues to its age are in the place names. While it’s a map of Africa and that continent is all in colour, it extends all the way up to Sweden in black and white and, in between, you can find Petrograd.
Petrograd was only Petrograd between 1914 and 1924, its name having been changed from St. Petersburg, which was deemed by the Russians to be unfashionably German at the time of the First World War. In 1924, the city was renamed Leningrad and it stayed Leningrad until 1991, as befitted the politics of the time. Now it’s St. Petersburg again and yet, even with all this nomenclatural chaos, the world was able to remember the existence of St. Peter, Peter the Great, and Lenin throughout.
My map of Africa also shows Er Rif, at the northern tip of Morocco, as belonging to the Spanish. The Riffians revolted in 1921, declaring independence from both the Moroccan sultan Yusef and Spain. They became the Confederal Republic of the Tribes of the Rif, a republic that led a precarious existence between 1921 and 1926, at which point the French and Spanish occupation forces took it over.
I guess then, and I am open to being corrected, that my map was likely printed between 1914 and 1921.
My point is that history is not erased by the renaming of things. It is often through renaming that the story of our past is articulated, later to be traced, told and learned. Nor is renaming a peculiar, modern phenomenon that must be resisted lest we all end up in self-driving cars eating avocado toast, delivered by drones, which people keep telling me would be a bad thing.
I grew up mostly in Guelph, Ont., and hearing that the neighbouring city of Kitchener had once been called Berlin was my first lesson about the First World War. Kitchener’s name was changed in 1916, I was told when I was about age six – offhandedly by some local history buff – because we were at war with Germany and the name Berlin was judged to be a bit too chummy with the enemy. That the name was changed and why it was changed is part of its – our – history.
This week, it was announced that Langevin Block, the building that houses the Prime Minister’s Office, will no longer be Langevin Block but will instead be called the Office of the Prime Minister and the Privy Council.
The building, constructed in 1889, was named after Hector-Louis Langevin. Mr. Langevin, a member of Sir John A. Macdonald’s cabinet and one of the Fathers of Confederation, was also one of the fathers of the Canadian residential school system, which he saw as the best way of ensuring that Indigenous children didn’t “remain savages.”
Of the resulting residential school system, I can only say this: If you haven’t yet, read the report, especially if you’re in a panic about us misremembering our past. Residential schools are part of Canada’s history, and in removing Mr. Langevin’s name from a building – one from which we are partly governed, no less – at a time when Canada must attempt reconciliation, we’re not burying our past. We’re unearthing it.
There has been an incredible level of hand-wringing about the name change, as there is about many name changes these days, and there seem to be three schools of lack-of-thought around monuments, statues, tributes, and the renaming and removing thereof.
The first is that change is simply impossible, or at least immoral. “Don’t trust that lying song, it’s still Constantinople,” this argument goes. “Or are you denying that Constantine the Great ever existed?”
The second argument is that we mustn’t apply modern standards to old heroes, and that everyone objecting to the perpetual celebration of people who tormented or enslaved their ancestors or their living relatives, like their auntie over there knitting them a scarf, is being far too sensitive.
Generally, this “don’t be such a snowflake” argument somehow manages to come around to not wanting to hurt the ghostly feelings of whatever dead hero’s statue or honorifically-named school is under discussion. Often, there’s a codicil that the once-celebrated figure meant well, or at least only meant as badly as everyone else did at the time, so don’t be such a meanie, snowflake.
The third line of defence takes one look at Defence Number Two, standing there boasting, “Look how bizarre I am, I am a complete freak of logic,” and simply says, “Hold my rhetorical beer.”
“Yes,” says Defence Number Three, “the old dead person in question was in fact horrible, you’re right. He was not at all the sort of person who deserves a great big statue or a major street named after him, and clearly the only the way to ensure future generations remember how horrible he was is to keep a lot of statues of him around and name an assortment of streets, schools, bridges and other miscellaneous public property after him. Not that I like the guy or admire his politics or anything, but lest we forget and all …”
Close observers may note that Defence Number Three and its devotees generally draw a line at which specific historical figures we must keep around under the guise of not repeating them.
There is as yet no Historical Baby Name Preservation Lottery ensuring all of history’s bad guys are suitably memorialized.
Parents don’t clutch their infants, spin the wheel and say, “Come on, come on Josephine, Josephine, come to mama, Josephine. … Aw damn, Hitler! We have to name our baby Hitler! Because Hitler was bad and people need to remember that. Ah well, at least little Torquemada won’t feel lonely.”
Some have pointed out that, given the issues still to be resolved, if we are to achieve reconciliation with Indigenous people, renaming a building is merely a distraction. But it is a gesture asked for by Indigenous MPs. In February 2016, Liberal backbenchers Don Rusnak and Robert-Falcon Ouellette and NDP MP Romeo Saganash, as well as Independent Hunter Tootoo, called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to take Mr. Langevin’s name off the building. Do it, it was argued, in deference to survivors of the residential schools who shouldn’t be subjected to constant reminders of a man who “devastated their lives.”
It’s hardly a gesture that could be said to drain resources from other initiatives. Be wary of anyone who claims that the potable water budget was all spent on new PMO stationery, and perhaps not negotiating from a building basically called “In Your Face!” will help in some small way.
Some delicate flowers are seriously claiming that renaming a building in Ottawa is a grave insult that will cause irreparable damage to their culture. These highly selective stalwart defenders of culture and community ought to consider the fact that the man for whom that building was named insisted in a speech to Parliament that while Indigenous children left with their families could learn how to “read and write”, they must be separated from them if they are to “acquire the habits and tastes … of civilized people” – and pipe right down.
Anxiety about preserving our culture might be better spent on renaming something. Nothing threatens our culture more than refusing change; toppling statues is one of our traditions, and history is renaming. If you’ve spent any of the past week whining about the renaming of Langevin Block, you better have done so as a proud citizen of Turtle Island.