ON NAMING AND RENAMING
In recent years several familiar figures from Canadian history have become the target of campaigns to take down statues erected in their honour, to remove their name from public buildings like high schools and universities, and to change street names. Ryerson University has been renamed Toronto Metropolitan University, statues of Sir John A. Macdonald languish in store rooms or are encased in plywood, and in Toronto some councillors and bureaucrats have tried to change the name of Dundas Street.
Activists would have these figures, and no doubt others yet to come, purged from our collective memory without a proper evaluation of the historical evidence, of the context of the values of their time, or of their circumstances and core achievements. These campaigns, in short, have far more to do with ideology than evidence.
The Canadian Institute for Historical Education seeks to play a constructive role in the naming and renaming debate. We aim to do so first by providing access to existing research and analysis from qualified professional historians and others competent to assess the evidence and offer their conclusions about the record of those historical figures who are now being re-evaluated; You will find useful links under the “Further Resources” tab on our Dundas, Macdonald and Ryerson pages. And we’ll do so also by organizing events at which these historians can present new research on specific questions about these historical figures and their achievements. Our three colloquium series on “Sir John A. Macdonald in Historical Context” is coming this fall.
To ensure that the ‘renaming” of places reflects a fair and balanced treatment of our past and that relevant facts and context inform these decisions. We will work with historians to provide decision makers with easy access to relevant existing historical evidence and analysis, commission new research where it seems necessary, and act as a catalyst for a more informed understanding amongst all Canadians.
Principles for Naming and Renaming
How to establish an evidence-based process to guide the naming or renaming of public spaces that acknowledge the contribution of past public personages.
Rationale for this Document
This document is intended to assist governments, government agencies, municipalities, universities, school boards, and other similar bodies in undertaking naming and renaming processes to ensure an outcome that is fair, supported by the community and consistent with the historical record.
CIHE Recommendations for Naming or Renaming Policies
All naming and renaming exercises involving historic figures (“subjects”) should be completed pursuant to a Naming or Renaming Policy. The Policy should:
- Require the creation of a committee dedicated to the process; set out its composition, which should be representative of the community, and the process by which it will make its recommendation to the ultimate decision maker;
- Require and provide for a comprehensive, transparent and principles-based process;
- Require a stated and defined rationale for the naming. Example: The purpose of the naming is to acknowledge x as the first Canadian to distinguish herself or himself in a certain field or fields of endeavour;
- Require an evidence-based examination of the subject including:
- A review of the available source material relevant to the subject’s life and accomplishments both positive and negative
- the involvement of those with relevant experience including, for example, knowledgeable historians or political scientists
- an understanding of the limitations and potential biases in accounts of the relevant historical events
- an assessment of the social, economic and political environment of the subject’s time
- an understanding of the context and circumstances that surrounded the decisions or accomplishments of the subject and how they should factor into a fair assessment of the subject, (e.g. were the actions of the subject heroic for their time? The subject will not be without blemishes: how much weight should be attached to them? If those blemishes were the subject’s prejudices, attitudes or actions, to what extent were they prevalent or unusual for their time?);
- Prescribe the steps that should be taken to ensure community engagement in the decision-making including:
- the creation of a list of all relevant community groups that should be invited to participate/comment on the proposed name
- the creation of a community engagement plan (e.g. will input be obtained through surveys, town hall meetings or other open forums, interviews with individuals or selected groups, etc. and how will the engagement will be completed?)
- public notice in advance of final recommendation with opportunity for the public comment;
- Require broad communication of the report which sets out the findings of the process described above and a detailed rationale for the naming or renaming decision; and
- Be regularly reviewed and updated as appropriate.
Background Commentary on the Complexity of the Decision-Making Process
- Arbitrary action in absence of a clear, transparent policy, whether it be taken by a government, municipal council, a university board of trustees or any similar body is unlikely to achieve a supportable result;
- Any decision taken in a naming or renaming process will result in some dissent and this simply underlines the importance of having and adhering to a comprehensive policy that includes an open and public consultation process;
- Experience in this often contentious area strongly suggests that while ‘renaming’ should take place in certain cases, it should be the exception and not the rule;
- Reliance on credible, verifiable historical evidence is critical to any supportable naming/renaming policy;
- It is important that the process take into account the historical context surrounding, and the full record of the subject, given that no human being is perfect and none who has led a public life will be without a measure of responsibility for some less than fortunate outcomes;
- The core Canadian value of fairness demands that any effort to judge someone of another time include an effort to understand the context of the time in which that person lived and worked.
An instructive example of a major institution – in this case, Yale University – developing a clear set of principles to guide its naming and renaming process can be found here.
Professor Margaret MacMillan on Renaming:
“We can have different views on the past but the past has happened and we can’t change that. We can’t change it by getting rid of names. We can’t change it by getting rid of people. The past is something you can debate about, you can have different opinions about but, if we remove all traces of it, then we’re not even going to have those debates.”
Margaret MacMillan, Canadian historian and author of, Paris 1919 and The War that Ended Peace
Professor Robin Winks on Renaming:
“History is a record of things from the past that should not be forgotten. In this view, removing an item from the historical record is like lying; … such removals are akin to the work of the infamous “Great Soviet Encyclopedia,” in which history became whatever the Party leaders wanted it to be at any given moment in time. History is (also) the commemoration and memorialization of the past. Commemoration often confers honour and asserts pride. It can also convey mourning and loss. Either way, commemoration expresses values. In this second conception of history, a change in the way a community memorializes its past offers a way to recognize important alterations in the community’s values.”
Robin Winks, Yale University