Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Debating Sir John A.

August 15, 2018

Now that Environment Minister Catherine McKenna has added her voice to the debate about the statue of Sir John A. I guess it's time for me to add mine.

Let's look at some of the language Minister McKenna, and lots of other people, use to frame the issue. First of all she says that the statue is being "torn down." No it isn't. It is being removed from its original site outside Victoria City Hall and relocated somewhere else. This seems to me important. The location of the statue lent it some sort of official imprimatur that a more neutral location would not.

"You can't erase history," says Minister McKenna. First of all one cannot resist pointing out that if anyone has been "erased" from history in this country it has been the Indigenous people whose children were taken from them along with their land and their culture. For the rest of us to talk about "erasure?" Well, it seems as if we are not really hearing what Indigenous people are saying to us.

Secondly, as many others have pointed out, history and statues of prominent historical figures are not the same thing. Statues don't really "tell stories." Statues commemorate, and they commemorate a particular version of the past. In the case of Sir John A. that version and his role in it are under revision. I don't see any reason why our public commemorative practices should not be revised as well. This is not "erasure." Sir John A. remains a part of our history, and our past, regardless of how many statues there are of him.

Minister McKenna, again along with many others, would like the statue to become a teachable moment. But isn't that the role of schools, and museums? Statues imply veneration; they are supposed to stand for the best of us. When Minister McKenna says that "it's important that we recognize our history -- the good and the bad" she gets no argument from me but she is being a bit ingenuous. We don't raise statues to the bad. By its nature the statue of Sir John implies that he represents "the good." But obviously not to the First Nations, and it makes perfect sense to me that Victoria City Council has taken the step that it did.

August 11, 2018

I spent a morning recently clambering around the top of Mount Seymour in the company of Alex Douglas, the "mountain man." Alex curates a small museum on the mountain and leads walking tours of some of the historic cabin sites.

According to Alex's website, "If you lived in Vancouver, Mount Seymour is where you learnt to ski." This was certainly true in my own case. Back in the mid-1950s my parents drove myself and my siblings up the...

July 22, 2018


One of the joys of noodling around in the history of one’s hometown – in my case Vancouver – is the threads of personal connection that, tugged upon, unravel something new about one’s own relationship with the place.

A case in point is Maude Sherman (1900-1976). Sherman was a founding member of the BC Art League, a group of Vancouver art lovers who banded together in the...

July 8, 2018


As mentioned below, I gave an illustrated talk on the history of squatting in Burrard Inlet recently. (If you are interested, Vancouver Sun reporter Kevin Griffin wrote a nice piece about it.)

One of the most organized of the...

July 2, 2018


The debate about revising the historical reputations of some of our "founding fathers" and the consequent removal of street names, statues, etc. is an important and complicated one. But sometimes it descends into farce.

A case in point is a stretch of highway outside of Courtenay on Vancouver Island. In 1996 Glen Clark's NDP government christened a part of the...

June 24, 2018


When I was a kid in 1950s Vancouver my father often took me to watch the Mounties play baseball at what was then Capilano Stadium. In fact I was part-owner of the club; at some point the team was community owned and my dad bought me a $25 share. Truth be told I found the games a bit boring but I appreciated spending time in the bleachers with my father and I daresay he felt the same...