Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/6/2021 (354 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
So the statue of Adolphus Egerton Ryerson housed at Ryerson University has been toppled, some 132 years after it was erected. Hit the ground on Sunday, beheaded, the head tossed briefly into the Toronto harbour. Don’t expect any tears from this quarter. It’s no loss to public discourse, and in fact has only aided it.
What purpose did that statue serve other than to lionize a powerful man who designed a progressive system of public education for one set of people, influenced the creation of a diabolically brutal one for another and dismissed a third set, among others, to an inferior segregated system?
The anger at Ryerson, freshly fanned by the discovery of the remains of an estimated 215 children at a former residential school site in Kamloops, B.C, is not a retrospective re-evaluation of a great man whose flaws have been exposed.
Differential school systems came up not by chance but by design, on the basis of an educational philosophy inspired by pseudo-scientific ideas of who gets to be considered civilized and who savage. In other words, the discriminatory system was a foundational feature of the philosophy, not a bug or an aberration.
Even if we grant an impossible innocence to the people who venerated the man enough to erect a statue in his name, and we assume that they didn’t know better then, it is untenable now: we know better. Why would we continue to memorialize a person whose presence is a reminder of violence inflicted on our fellow humans?
Both the erection and takedown of a statue are about symbolism. Falling statues don’t end colonial atrocities. But they signal an end to celebrating them.
Last summer’s protests for Black lives fundamentally shifted public opinion on how historical figures linked to colonialism and racism are commemorated in public spaces. The immediate months of protests saw the felling of statues of the genocidal Christopher Columbus in dozens of places across the States, of Confederate hero and slavery defender Robert E. Lee in Alabama, of King Leopold — the butcher of Congo — in Belgium, of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, of Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, in Montreal.
Not all statue toppling can be judged by the same lens, of course. It was for shame that the Taliban in 2001 destroyed two majestic statues of the Buddha carved into the sandstone cliffs in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley. Theirs was a fundamentalist rage based on intolerance against idolatry in other cultures and religions.
The contemporary takedowns are the opposite, based on resistance to intolerance and the violence it begets.
Does this mean all statues are now meaningless, disposable? Of course not. Those that are in museums, in temples and other places of worship still offer opportunities for knowledge, guidance and comfort to the self-selected group of people who visit there.
In the public space, some statues symbolize higher thought — the Statue of Liberty for instance. Some become cultural icons, such as the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro. Neither is above reflection and critique.
Others are perhaps meant to be lessons in history, a societal attempt to remind the present of past glory, a statement of legacies cherished.
These are precisely the reasons a takedown of Ryerson’s statue should be a non-controversial affair. A routine event undertaken by the administrators on the premises, rather than protesters agitating for Ryerson University to change its name. The university’s First Nation-led think tank, the Yellowhead Institute, said its students and staff will now call it “X University” in emails and on social media.
It’s not even as if the agitation is new. Indigenous communities and students have been raising concerns about Ryerson’s legacy for decades.
If statues impart lessons in history, it’s likely in ways their makers didn’t intend. The controversial ones being mostly male tell us we are in a patriarchal society. Being mostly white and violent, they tell us we are in a racist one. Being mostly of powerful people, they tell us we’re in an oppressive one.
The statue of Ryerson in the university, which existed for more than a century, deified him but played little role in educating passers-by about residential schools. Some people call for modified plaques to rectify the public record of their contributions. It’s sweet to imagine a life of unhurried citizens stopping every now and then to read plaques of statues to educate themselves.
The reality is with or without plaques, mute statues send an unmistakable message with their outsized presence. They represent a chosen few among the many unsung heroes. Thus cherished, they tell us in unmistakable terms: here stands a hero among heroes.
Ryerson University has said the toppled statue will not be restored or replaced. Perhaps the plinth can fit a memorial for residential school children, instead. Or howsoever Indigenous communities see fit to use it. The present can tell the past: Indigenous peoples survived. They decide whom we cherish.
Correction — June 10, 2021: This column was edited to correct that the statue of Edward Colston was in Bristol, not London.
Shree Paradkar is a Toronto-based columnist covering issues around race and gender for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @ShreeParadkar