Sunday, 2 August 2020

Blog Post #188 - August 2, 2020: "Conversations About Racism, Part Three - Reconsidering Sir John A. Macdonald"

Blog Post #188 – 2 August 2020

Conversations About Racism, Part Three

Reconsidering Sir John A. Macdonald


 

Note: A YouTube version of this post can be found here.

Viewing time: 15 minutes.

 

It’s time to reconsider my opinion of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.

 

I’ve enjoyed studying history for over sixty years. Inspired by gifted teachers, I majored in Canadian history at university. The more I studied history, the more nuanced it became. I once naïvely believed that history was fixed – a universally agreed set of facts, dates, causes, and consequences. Frozen in time, never to be reconsidered, only to be recalled.

 

Then I grew up. 

 

The world was infinitely more complex than that. Disputed understandings of the present lead to disputed understandings of the past. New insights, evidence, and theories constantly arise and challenge established versions of events. I clearly remember the day a world-altering insight registered in my young mind: history depends on who writes it. And those who write it used to be the ‘winners’, predominantly white and male. Of the many revolutions currently roiling the marketplace of ideas, one of the most important has been the opening up of history to alternate perspectives, especially from disenfranchised, oppressed, and previously silenced voices. The cat and the mouse experience the same events very differently. 

 

Which brings me to Canada’s first Prime Minister, John Alexander Macdonald, aka ‘Sir John A’. 

 

Some background for non-Canadian readers: born in Scotland in 1815, Macdonald migrated with his family to Kingston, Upper Canada (now Ontario) in 1820. He started practising law in nearby Picton in 1833. His legal career took him back to Kingston and into politics. Ultimately, he became the prime architect of Canadian federation. Tradition calls him ‘The Father of Confederation’. As a result of his leadership, cajoling, and arm-twisting, the Dominion of Canada came into being on July 1, 1867, a date now designated as Canada Day. In the beginning, it comprised three British North American colonies: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the Province of Canada (modern day Québec and Ontario). In subsequent years, Canada expanded to all the land mass north of the USA to the Arctic Ocean, with the exception of Alaska. 

 

Macdonald was Prime Minister twice: from 1867 to 1873; and from 1878 until his death in 1891. He was a towering, controversial figure who inspired both passionate support and deep loathing. He spearheaded the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway to bring British Columbia into the federation, connecting the country with a line of steel in 1885 – but not without scandal, rancour, and violence. 

 

Macdonald helped forge a country that arguably would have been swallowed up by the ravenous United States had he not stubbornly stood his ground. 

 


 

I have always had a fond spot in my heart for Sir John A. He helped found the land of my birth, the land I call home, the land I love. He was a larger-than-life figure who strode this country like a colossus. His personal life was marked by grief and tragedy. He was a notoriously heavy drinker. He was deeply flawed.

 

And, it turns out, he was a racist, even beyond the standards of the late 19th century, when Canada’s predominantly white culture was pervasively and casually racist. 

 

Which takes us to Canada’s infamous Residential Schools for Indigenous children and The Indian Act.

 

The Indian Act was passed by the Canadian Parliament in 1876. Although Macdonald was not Prime Minister when The Indian Act was initially passed, the law was based on The Gradual Civilization Act, passed under Macdonald’s leadership in 1857 – ten years before Confederation – by the legislature of the former Province of Canada. The Indian Act codified the relationship between the Government of Canada and the Indigenous peoples of this country. And The Indian Act is still in effect, although it has been amended over the years. It is a shockingly racist, paternalistic law that has traumatized tens of thousands of Indigenous people. In the early 1880s, when Macdonald was once again Prime Minister, Residential Schools for Indigenous children were established across Canada under the authority of The Indian Act. The goal of the Residential Schools was to strip Indigenous children of their cultures and languages and to force them to become ‘white’. The Indian Act legalized the forced removal of Indigenous children from their homes and families, followed by relocation to distant Residential Schools. Most were operated by the Roman Catholic Church and various Protestant denominations. In the words of Macdonald, “An indigenous child educated where he or she lives is simply a savage who can read or write.” In Residential Schools, Macdonald intended that the kidnapped children “acquire the habits and modes of thoughts of white men.” 

 

The children were forbidden to speak their birth languages and forced to learn French or English. Their cultural practices were banned. And – appallingly – they were subject to massive abuse: sexual, emotional, and physical, often at the hands of priests and nuns. It is estimated that 150,000 Indigenous children were coerced into attending these schools from the 1870s until the last one closed in 1996.

 

1996!

 

The trauma suffered by these children is incalculable. Tragically, the trauma reverberates from one generation to the next. The profundity of the racism inflicted on the bodies, minds, and souls of these children is vast, nauseating, and heartless. And the wretched consequences continue to be felt in every corner of this land. 

 

If you want to learn more about the obscenity of the Residential Schools, a sobering starting point is the 2015 final report (link) of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). The TRC was established in 2008 to document and assess the impact that Residential Schools had – and continue to have – on Indigenous peoples in Canada. The report’s unflinching honesty and rage needs to be required reading for every Canadian citizen. Its ninety-four “Calls to Action” (link) remain, sadly, mostly unfulfilled.

 

The second element of Macdonald’s racist legacy was his attitude towards the Chinese. In 1885, he said in the House of Commons that allowing Chinese people to settle permanently in Canada would mean that “the Aryan character of the future of British America would be destroyed.” He also considered that the 1885 passage of The Electoral Franchise Act, which took the vote away from men of “the Mongolian or Chinese race”, to be his “greatest achievement.”

 

Completing Macdonald’s trifecta of racism, historians have uncovered evidence of his support for the Confederate cause in the American Civil War (1861-1865) and even suggest that these sympathies influenced his choice of the word “Confederation” to describe the new Canadian nation. 

 

Let that one sink in.

 

(See “Reconsidering the Underground Railroad: Slavery and Racialization in the Making of the Canadian State” by retired Queen’s University/University of Toronto professor Abigail Bakan, Journal of the Society of Socialist Studies, Spring 2008, pages 18-19. Link) 

 

So, when I examine John A. Macdonald’s legacy, I see institutionalized, state-sanctioned racism.

 

I often hear people say that we mustn’t judge the past by the standards of the present. I disagree. That’s what the modern study of history is predicated upon: contemporary eyes critically examining the past while discerning guidance for the future. And sometimes these contemporary historians discover that our past leaders behaved very badly indeed, even by the standards of their own day.

 

So the conundrum becomes: how do we recognize the contributions of such figures in our past, while acknowledging the profound damage their policies and actions caused?

 

 

Which brings us to Holding Court, the 2015 statue of Sir John A. Macdonald by the gifted Canadian artist Ruth Abernethy. The statue stands in front of the Picton Public Library and commemorates Macdonald’s first court case in Picton, October 8, 1834, although the details of this case are disputed. 

 

Holding Court is the source of controversy in Prince Edward County: some staunchly defend the statue as a celebration of Picton’s – and Canada’s – heritage, while others want it removed because of Macdonald’s traumatic treatment of Indigenous peoples. Red paint has been thrown on it twice in recent weeks.

 

 

Full disclosure: in 2015 I donated money to The Macdonald Project, the organization that proposed and raised money for the creation of Holding Court. (link) My opinions about Macdonald have evolved since then; were that fund-raising campaign held today, I would not support it.

 

The County of Prince Edward, the municipal government that is the custodian of Holding Court, has established a community consultation process about the statue’s future. Representatives of the nearby Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte are part of this process. I will follow the consultations closely.

 

My views: Holding Court cannot continue as it currently exists. The painful reality of Macdonald’s racism and treatment of Indigenous people demands – at the very least – contextualization and recognition of the ongoing trauma. 

 

One option is to relocate Holding Court to Picton’s Macaulay Heritage Park for display in a museum setting. 

 

In any case, it cannot stay where it is, as it is. 

 

Another approach would be to remove the figure of Macdonald from Holding Court, while keeping the empty witness chair on public view. I like the powerful metaphor of that image – an eloquent reminder of my country’s unwillingness to acknowledge its past.

 

Thanks to the miracle of Photoshop, this is my version of Holding Court, without Macdonald.

 


 

I recognize, by the way, that artist Ruth Abernethy might object to having the two elements her sculpture split apart.

 

So....to sum up:

 

I have had people – white people – tell me that, while they claim to understand the anger felt by Indigenous peoples about their racist treatment in the past, it is now time for them to let go of that anger and move on. In other words, “Get over it.” The mind-numbing racism of this thinking leaves me speechless. The racial wounds are so profound and deeply embedded in Canadian society that a simplistic push for ‘closure’ trivializes and exacerbates intergenerational Indigenous suffering, leading to further traumatization. Rather than healing the trauma, such a push merely reflects white reluctance to acknowledge Canada’s reprehensible treatment of Indigenous peoples.

 

I hope that this modest essay helps promote a healing path.

 

I am going on hiatus for a few weeks while Bill and I move to Picton. I plan to re-start photography, writing, and blog posts, early in the autumn.

 

Until then, stay safe, stay well, and stay curious.

 

The photographs that follow come from a photo collage project I developed two years ago as my thinking about Sir John A. Macdonald began shifting.

 

Thank you.

 

Larry Tayler Photography

Belleville (soon to be Picton), Ontario

LarryTayler.com








 

 

 

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Blog Post #187 - "A Celebration of Oddity", 26 July, 2020

A Celebration of Oddity
Blog Post #187 – 26 July 2020

Last week, I celebrated bits of beauty. This week, it’s a celebration of oddity.

Dictionary.com defines oddity as “singularity, strangeness, or eccentricity.” 

Now, I know a thing or two about oddity. 

As a child, I once overheard a friend of my mother’s whisper to her, “Well, Rose, Larry is...um...an odd little boy.” (Note to parents: kids always hear what people whisper.) Up until that point in my life, I hadn’t been aware of any adjectives used to describe me. I was blissfully oblivious about categories or pigeon-holes. It did not seem odd to me, for instance, that I would take inordinate interest in setting fires, stealing gun powder, or listening to CBC Radio. It is only in retrospect that I see the oddness of a pyromaniac child with a worrisome interest in explosions and politics. 

But once I had heard my mother’s friend whisper that word “odd”, I fully embraced the label. 

“Yes, world, I am odd. Yippee!” 

It wasn’t long before I was studying Russian, subscribing to Hansard, and quoting from Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. Not to mention sending rocket designs to NASA, writing outraged letters to The Globe and Mail, and reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover to learn about sex. 

Yup, definitely odd.

Which means that one of the things that delights me most about photography is recording odd images. Off-kilter images that my mother’s friend would not have understood. 

But I thank her for the label. It has served me well.

In that spirit, I offer the following odd photographs for your perusal. Enjoy!

Closing note: this is my penultimate blog post before going on hiatus while Bill and I move to Picton. (Yes, dear Reader, I have reached “P” in the dictionary.) Once we are settled into our new home, I plan to re-start photography, writing, and blog posts, likely in early autumn. 

Next week’s theme will be part three of my “Conversations about Racism” - a reconsideration of the legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's first Prime Minister.

Larry Tayler Photography
Belleville (soon to be Picton), Ontario
LarryTayler.com










  

Sunday, 19 July 2020

Blog Post #186 - "Bits of Beauty" - July 19, 2020

Blog Post #186 – 19 July 2020
Bits of Beauty

It’s time to celebrate bits of beauty. I’ve dipped into my file of photos made during the peak of Covid-19 isolation to find images that don’t fit any particular theme but that deserve to be seen. They range from a snow-covered daffodil in our back yard to a wonderful old neighbourhood dog. I’ve even thrown in a close-up of my husband’s prized pickled eggs!

Bill and I are coming to the end of our sojourn in Belleville. We bought our house here almost seven years ago, a year before I retired. We moved full-time from Toronto six years ago. Those six years have been filled with gifts, challenges, and wonderful memories, but it is now time for us to go back home – to Prince Edward County. For those unfamiliar with Ontario’s geography, Prince Edward County – not to be confused with Prince Edward Island on Canada’s east coast – is a large island on the north shore of Lake Ontario. Our new house will be in Picton, the main town of Prince Edward County. It’s about a 25-minute drive south of Belleville. Our moving date is scheduled for Tuesday, September 8. Once August arrives, life will be very busy – packing, organizing, and saying good-byes. I plan to write two more weekly blog posts before going on hiatus. Next week, I want to write about some odd photos I’ve made during Covid-19 times, and then I’ll finish off with the third part of my conversations about racism. Once we get settled into Picton, I plan to re-start my photography, writing, and blog posts, likely in early autumn.

Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy the bits of beauty in these photos.











Larry Tayler Photography
Belleville, Ontario
LarryTayler.com





Sunday, 12 July 2020

Blog Post #185: "The invisible white WE" - Conversations about Racism, Part 2. July 12, 2020

 Note: 
There is a 12-minute recorded version of this 
blog post available on YouTube.
With thanks to Bill Stearman for the suggestion.
( Link)

Blog Post #185: 
The invisible white WE  
Conversations About Racism, Part Two

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They.

- Rudyard Kipling, 
“We and They” 
(1926)

It is ironic that I start Part Two of my Conversations about Racism by quoting Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), the white English author who popularized the term “the white man’s burden.” I loathe the racism in Kipling’s writing, but I do find this quotation, from the final stanza of his poem “We and They”, to be a useful starting point for today’s topic.

In this essay, I’m exploring the power of what I call ‘the invisible white WE’ when talking about Anti-BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) racism.

Please see my disclosure statement about the term ‘invisible white WE at the end.

In Part One of this series about racism (21 June 2020 – Link), I wrote about being born white in a predominantly white community. When growing up, I was not aware that I was white. In the same way that to a fish, the water is invisible, the concept of being white was invisible to me. In that essay, I made the connection between this invisibility, white privilege, and white systemic racism, all in aid of confronting my own racism.

Here’s an anecdote to illustrate what I mean by ‘the invisible white WE:

About eighteen months ago, I saw a Facebook post that featured the photo of a large sign placed near the entrance of an American Protestant church. It was the kind of sign typically seen in front of churches welcoming non-attenders into the life of the congregation. (Forgive me, but the details of the sign are garnered from memory. Alas, I did not save the photo, nor do I know the church’s denomination or location.)

The sign read something like this:

WE...welcome People of Color.
WE...welcome Indigenous people.
WE...welcome Gay and Lesbian people.
WE...welcome disabled people.
WE...welcome minorities.
WE...welcome you!

An impressive list, I thought to myself...until I looked at the word ‘WE’. Who, exactly, is the ‘WE’ that’s doing all this welcoming? 

It isn’t minority people (whatever that means).
It isn’t disabled people.
It isn’t Gay or Lesbian people. 
It isn’t Indigenous people.
And it isn’t People of Colour.

By process of elimination, you’re left with the conclusion that it’s white, straight, able-bodied people who are doing the welcoming. And they’re not identified. They’re way too busy welcoming all the people who aren’t like them. 

This is an example of ‘the invisible white WE. By not including people like themselves in the list of those being welcomed, they have rendered their whiteness invisible. After all, they are the norm. They consider themselves the ‘normal’ people who are generously welcoming all the ‘other’ people into the life of their church. They have the power to define what constitutes ‘other’. And it’s not them, because they’re already there. The distinguished American journalist Isabel Wilkerson calls this phenomenon “invisible scaffolding.” (“America’s Enduring Racial Caste System”, New York Times Magazine, July 5, 2020, Page 28)

The implication of this racial invisibility hit me hard. It came at a time when I was starting to fathom my own white privilege. The concept that white was so ‘normal’ in my culture that it didn’t need to be named or acknowledged was hugely disturbing. 

I posted a (too) hasty reply on Facebook to the church sign, saying something cheeky like, “I guess this church doesn’t welcome white people, because they’re not on the list.” Within minutes, someone posted a comment objecting to the tone of my comment and accusing it – and me – of being racist.

I tried drafting a better response, explaining that I was in fact trying to be anti-racist and that I was grappling with being a racist simply because I had been born white in a white society, but the subtleties were too complex to cover in a brief reply. Rather than risk an online argument about what was – and what was not – racist, I deleted my comment. 

A good example of white privilege, don’t you think? 

This episode taught me three lessons:

1.       ‘The invisible white WE is a powerful force in our society.
2.       I hadn’t done enough homework to articulate my point of view and to reply to challenges of it.
3.       The term ‘white people’ makes many white people nervous.

Here’s my current thinking about racism: for white people, race and white privilege are normalized and are, therefore, invisible. The sociological term for this invisibility is ‘implicit bias’. The group that has the power to define ‘normal’ is the group that benefits most from that power. The more entrenched that power becomes, the more invisible it becomes. The more invisible it becomes, the more those who benefit from it deny that it exists. To repeat the metaphor I used earlier, “To the fish, the water is invisible.” 

(Last-minute addition: Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, adds to this metaphor by pointing out you can’t be untouched by the water you’re swimming in. See below for more information about Dr. DiAngelo.)

I am not saying that all use of ‘We’ when examining racism is bad. There are ‘We’ groups that are intentionally inclusive and anti-racist. What I am trying put into words is the insidious, invisible white attitude that denies racism and white privilege exist.

A good starting point for research about implicit bias is the Perception Institute. (Link) According to the Perception Institute’s website, it is a “consortium of researchers, advocates, and strategists who translate cutting edge research on race, gender, and other identities into solutions that reduce bias and discrimination, and promote belonging.” It is based in Washington, DC.

Another anti-racist resource is Robin Diangelo’s fabulous book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. It is an excellent guide for understanding white racism. It has sharp edges and is uncomfortable for me as a white person to read – by design. Highly recommended. Diangelo – who identifies as white – believes that white people need some racial humility. She focuses particularly on white people who believe they are free of bias. As she says, “Another way that my life has been shaped by being white is that my race is held up as the norm for humanity. Whites are ‘just people’ – our race is rarely if ever named.”

(Watch one of Dr. DiAngelo’s powerful YouTube presentations here. And listen to Krista Tippett’s On Being interview with Dr. DiAngelo and racial trauma expert Resmaa Menakem here.) 

My friends: the above thoughts mark the beginning of a journey for me. I have no easy solutions, but at least my journey has begun. I’ve started writing Part Three of these conversations – a reconsideration of Sir John A. Macdonald, due in early August. 

Disclosure: when I searched the term ‘the invisible white WE’ to see if anyone else uses it, Google found only one reference. It is contained in an essay by Sue Shore in Whitening Race: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism, edited by Aileen Moreton-Robinson (Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, Australia, 2004, page 101). The title of Dr. Shore’s essay is Destabilising or Recuperating Whiteness? (Un)mapping ‘The Self’ of Agentic Learning Discourses. Dr. Shore teaches at the International Graduate Centre of Education at Charles Darwin University, Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia. Portions of the book are available without charge on Google Books (Link). 

The photos: They all feature graffiti on railway cars in the Canadian National freight yard in Belleville. Graffiti art can be an elegantly complex world of in-groups, codes, and secret symbols. It reminds me of the equally complex world of ‘the invisible white WE’ : full of in-groups, codes, and secret symbols. 

Until next time, my friends, stay safe.

Thank you.













Larry Tayler Photography
Belleville, Ontario, Canada
LarryTayler.com



Sunday, 5 July 2020

Blog Post, July 5, 2020: "Belleville House & Lawn Decorations"

Belleville House and Lawn Decorations

ITBT – In The Before Times – I had not realized how much east-end Belleville loves its house and lawn decorations. We’re not talking about the tasteful door wreaths that I’ve blogged about earlier. No, this time, I’ve been photographing seriously funky ornaments and tchotchkes. And ceramics. Lots and lots of ceramics. I have dozens of photos of such decorations, most made while Edna and I had our daily, socially distanced walks. It’s as if these ornaments were talismans (talismen? talispersons?) intended to ward off misfortune and to welcome in good fortune. And, depending on my mood, I was either charmed and delighted by them – or appalled and dismayed. Mostly it was charm and delight. 

(Side note: I’m saving my dismay for people who don’t wear face masks or shields when near non-bubble people.) 

In fact, I could have created several themed albums of ornament photos: wall-mounted bicycles; faded plastic flowers; puppy and kitten statues galore; acres of angels; miniature houses placed in trees; donkeys pulling wagons; and oddities that defied category. And each of them – I hope – loved and cared for by doting owners.

The last photo, a creepy concrete head I discovered on Farley Avenue in May, has special meaning for me. The Quinte Arts Council (QAC) is featuring it on the cover of the upcoming summer edition of Umbrella, the quarterly magazine it publishes about the arts in the Bay of Quinte area. The theme is ”Arts in Isolation: The COVID-19 Issue”. I think my photo speaks to the ambiguities and uncertainties of our times.

I offer this collection of ornaments in appreciation for all those people who curate exhibits for their homes, lawns, and gardens. Enjoy!













Larry Tayler Photography
Belleville, Ontario
LarryTayler.com