Historians struggle with the idea of commemoration. Whether it is a historic site, event or a significant person, there are so many questions that need to be asked. How do we decide what warrants commemoration? Who should decide this? What form will the commemoration take – will it be a statue or a plaque? Where will it be placed? These are just some of the questions that need to be considered.
However, these are also questions that need to be considered by historians who are writing history. What should we write about? Who should we write about? What should we say about them?
So why is it that commemoration is such a hot-button topic that is seldom without controversy?
One (perhaps obvious) answer is that commemorations take on a much more public form. A lot of our written history affects only those who already have an interest in the subject and actively seek out history books, articles or journals. Works of commemoration, however, affect people on a larger scale. National historic sites (and the content contained therein) are not only consumed by history enthusiasts, but by tourists and school groups, for example. Smaller forms of commemoration, such as statues and plaques, can be placed in busy urban areas or central spaces that receive high traffic on a regular basis.
Another reason that commemoration can be so difficult is due to its permanence. We are used to history being written and rewritten, as society changes and we adopt new ways of thinking about the past. However, when we commission a stone monument and put it in a public space, very little can be done to change its message.
The example that I have in my head as I write this is the Famous Five monument, which we discussed in class this week. There are actually two Famous Five monuments, one in Calgary and one in Ottawa (on Parliament Hill) and they serve to honour 5 Canadian suffragists who were key in promoting women’s rights in the early 20th century. They are best known for the “Person’s Case,” of 1929 in which they challenged the Canadian Senate’s ruling that a woman was not considered a person under the British North America Act of 1867 (and was therefore excluded from sitting in the Senate). The women then appealed the Senate’s decision to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and were met with success.
While this was unarguably a defining moment for Canadian women’s rights, creating a monument to honour these individuals proved to be difficult. These were women of the early 20th century and, aside from their progressive views for women, they maintained what we would perceive today to be racist and elitist mentalities. Some of these women openly participated in Canada’s eugenics movement and advocated for strict immigration laws. There are some historians who have argued that suffragists were not as concerned with women’s rights as they were with having more power with which they could exert their social values.
It is difficult to commemorate one aspect or contribution of an individual (or group, as in this case), without condoning other actions or beliefs that are perhaps not worthy of commemoration. In the case of the Famous Five monument in Ottawa, organizers used the unveiling ceremony as an opportunity to frame this particular period of women’s rights as just one in an ongoing history. The ceremony included performers from different cultural and language groups so as to celebrate the inclusiveness that these five suffragists did not.
Although the Canadian government attempted to address the complexities of this particular commemoration, once the celebrations were over Parliament Hill was left with a stone (and, from what I understand, large) structure of these women. The contextualization that was provided in the unveiling ceremony is no longer available to first time or unknowing visitors. A cursory search on the web reveals very little information about the unveiling ceremony. The Canadian government’s website for Parliament Hill does not discuss the ceremony, nor does this site from virtualmuseum.ca.
It seems as though the monument’s permanence has prevailed in the commemoration controversy.