Historical figures should be honoured for their achievements, not condemned for their flaws

Mark MilkeIt’s popular these days to cancel historical figures when their views do not precisely mimic our own. Thus, those who practice deliberate historic amnesia rename streets, bridges, and entire neighbourhoods or remove statues to satisfy an Orwellian need to block out what they assume is a blot on the human species – the men and women who came before us and built Canada.

But go down that road and one can inevitably cancel any figure in history who might have accomplished anything useful despite having error-prone views on some other subject.

Here are a few examples.

One famous Indian activist once advised German Jews, after Kristallnacht, to practice non-violence toward the German SS. He also wrote Adolf Hitler in 1941 to inform him that he, the writer, did not “believe that you are the monster described by your opponents.”

historical figures d-day churchill

A D-Day reenactment in Blyth, Northumberland, UK
Photo by Duncan Kidd

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That was Mahatma Gandhi, who was egregiously naïve about Hitler and the Nazis but was right to demand independence for India from the British.

In the early 19th century, progressives assumed that eugenics – the assumption that race was a real “thing” and mattered to outcomes – was scientific. They were wrong. Eugenics was pseudoscientific nonsense.

But many progressives who held that view. Among them, the Famous Five suffragists (Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Emily Murphy, and Irene Parlby) were also active in the early feminist movement to gain the vote and equal rights for women. Early progressives were dead wrong about eugenics, but right to argue women deserved the same rights as men.

Unless one is a deity, everyone in 2024 holds beliefs and opinions that future generations will likely view as misguided or worse. We should cut some slack to those who came before us, endured mass poverty, the Great Depression, and wars, and still managed to carve out an ever-improving Canada, which we all benefit from today.

As we approach the 80th anniversary of D-Day, we should resist skipping over difficult history and cancelling historical figures in favour of self-righteous, moral self-congratulation.

Specifically, the Sir Winston Churchill Society of Calgary will soon commemorate the sacrifices of the 15,000 Canadian soldiers who participated in the Normandy invasion on June 6th. On that day, 960 soldiers were killed or wounded. We will also honour the thousands of Canadian Navy and Air Force personnel who served with distinction during that terrible day, as well as the more than 43,000 Canadians who perished in the Second World War to free Europe from the tyranny of Adolf Hitler and large swaths of Asia from imperial Japan.

Every Canadian should remember those who died in the war and also Winston Churchill, the lone voice in the 1930s who warned of Hitler and the Nazis. Thanks to his efforts and those of tens of millions of other allies and leaders, we could breathe freer after 1945.

That group includes the thousands of Indigenous Canadians who served in both world wars, hoping that Canada would one day treat them more justly than it had to date. It also includes Canadians of every ethnicity, religion, and colour who came to Canada in successive immigration waves, believing that Canada was where they and their children could succeed.

Now, let’s turn briefly to Winston Churchill, who first visited Calgary and the West in 1929 and who we at the Churchill Society of Calgary also remember. Churchill was fascinated by southern Alberta, particularly its ranching country and the Turner Valley oil fields. He was mesmerized by the beauty of Banff, Lake Louise, and Emerald Lake, where he painted landscapes he thought trumped even Switzerland in their beauty.

Churchill exemplifies why we should commemorate people for their achievements rather than condemn them for their flaws, which we all have.

Churchill was an imperialist but also a politician who advocated for the betterment of the working poor. He opposed Gandhi but wanted to protect the Untouchables and Muslims from the majority population. He was also a stalwart defender of basic fairness, refusing an American military request to enforce white American segregationist practices against black military personnel in British pubs.

As we approach the D-Day anniversary, a crucial moment in defeating Nazi Germany and ending one of history’s most evil regimes, let’s not listen to those who flippantly judge the past. These critics believe they have achieved peak moral virtue and casually dismiss the efforts of previous generations who built a freer, more prosperous world.

We owe the Second World War generation a tremendous debt of gratitude.

Mark Milke is the volunteer president of the Sir Winston Churchill Society of Calgary and also the president of the Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy. The Churchill Society’s D-Day commemoration banquet will take place on June 6th and feature the great-grandson of Winston Churchill, Randolph Churchill III, as the keynote speaker. Dinner tickets are available at www.churchillcalgary.ca.

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