GOLDSTEIN: The danger of judging the past by the present



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The late British writer GK Chesterton once remarked that “a lot of journalism is about telling ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive.


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This was the case with media coverage last week as Toronto Council – often the epicenter of absurdity in Canadian municipal politics – lived up to its reputation by voting to spend up to 6.3 million dollars to rename Dundas Street, named after Scottish politician Henry Dundas.

The costs will involve removing the name “Dundas” from street signs, metro stations and other namesakes such as the city’s iconic Yonge-Dundas Square.

It will be until 2023 to find a new name for Dundas and complete the transformation, according to the city.

Council will also decide what will happen to about 60 other streets with so-called problematic names.

All because of a petition to council signed by 14,000 people denouncing Dundas for delaying the abolition of the slave trade in the 1790s.


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That’s 14,000 in a city of 2.9 million people, the vast majority of whom had no idea who Henry Dundas was.

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But this foolishness is what happens when you judge the past by the standards of the present – it even has a name, it’s called “presentism”.

There has been massive media coverage in Toronto of the recent overthrow and beheading of a statue of Egerton Ryerson at Ryerson University, which now bears a problematic name.

Ryerson was chief superintendent of education for Upper Canada from 1844 to 1876.

He was light years ahead of his time in advocating for free public education, but he was also one of the architects of Canada’s residential school system.


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What is less well known is that a statue of Emily Murphy – one of Canada’s “famous five” suffragists who successfully led the “people” affair in 1927 recognizing women as “people” In British law – was recently smeared with red paint in Edmonton.

Murphy was a promoter of the discredited science of eugenics based on the belief that some races are superior to others.

She also advocated the sterilization of the mentally ill and campaigned against immigration, fearing Chinese immigrants would make whites addicted to drugs.

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As Rebecca Sullivan, professor in the Gender and Sexuality Studies program at the University of Calgary, recently told Global News:

“Emily Murphy, along with all of the Famous Five and most of the social reformers of the day, took credit for the philosophy of eugenics; this idea that there was a superiority of races and, in particular, people of Christian descent from northern Europe were superior.


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Another social reformer in favor of eugenics was Tommy Douglas, the father of Canadian Medicare who served as premier of Saskatchewan and was deemed “the greatest Canadian” in a national public participation competition. organized by the CBC in 2004.

There is a statue of Douglas in Weyburn, Saskatchewan.

In his 1933 Masters thesis for McMaster University, “The Problems of the Subnormal Family”, Douglas advocated, among other things, the sterilization of “the mentally retarded and the incurably ill”.

Douglas eventually gave up his belief in eugenics, but his plea at the time was not controversial and was in fact endorsed by many who considered themselves to be so-called progressives.

All this demonstrates the problem of judging the past by the standards of the present.

Presentism leads to the conclusion that Egerton Ryerson, Emily Murphy, and Tommy Douglas deserve public exposure and nothing more.

What it does not tell us are the key roles they played in the development of public education, women’s rights and health insurance.

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