GOLDSTEIN: The danger of judging the past by the present

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The late British writer G.K. Chesterton once famously observed that “journalism largely consists in saying ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive.”


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Such was the case with media coverage last week as Toronto Council — often the epicentre of absurdity in Canadian municipal politics — lived up to its reputation by voting to spend up to $6.3 million renaming Dundas Street, named for Scottish politician Henry Dundas.

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

It will take until 2023 to come up with a new name for Dundas and complete the transformation, according to the city.

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

All this 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, the vast majority of whom had no idea of who Henry Dundas was.

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 toppling and beheading of a statue of Egerton Ryerson, at the now problematically-named Ryerson University.

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

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


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Less well known is that a statue of Emily Murphy — one of Canada’s “Famous Five” suffragists who successfully spearheaded the 1927 “persons case” recognizing women as “persons” 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 some races are superior to others.

She also advocated the sterilization of the mentally ill, and campaigned against immigration, fearing immigrants from China would get white people addicted to drugs.

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

“Emily Murphy, along with all the Famous Five and most social reformers of the period, ascribed to the philosophy of eugenics; this idea that there was superiority of the races and, in particular, people of northern European Christian descent were superior.”


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Another social reformer who was a supporter of eugenics was Tommy Douglas, the father of Canadian medicare who served as premier of Saskatchewan and was judged “The Greatest Canadian” in a 2004 nation-wide, audience-participation competition run by the CBC.

There’s a statue of Douglas in Weyburn, Sask.

In his 1933 Master’s thesis for McMaster University, “The Problems of the Subnormal Family,” Douglas advocated, among other things, the sterilization of “mental defectives and those incurably diseased.”

Douglas eventually abandoned his belief in eugenics but his advocacy of them at the time wasn’t controversial and was in fact endorsed by many people who considered themselves to be so-called progressives.

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

Presentism leads to the conclusion Egerton Ryerson, Emily Murphy and Tommy Douglas merit public denunciation and nothing more.

What it fails to tell us is the key roles they played in the development of public education, women’s rights and medicare.

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