The past several months have been filled with disturbing events that have given rise to a sometimes heated debate about moral standards in a historical context. The discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves of Indigenous children on the grounds of Canada’s notorious residential schools have exposed the horrendous mistreatment rendered on these poor innocents by the religious orders that ran most of these institutions on behalf of the Canadian government. Neglect, malnourishment, physical, mental and sexual abuse were rampant, and unnatural death was an all too frequent result. The most horrible aspect of this was that most of this occurred at the hands of priests and nuns who supposedly had committed their lives to following the Christian precepts of love, kindness and mercy towards their fellow man. All this was being done in accordance with an official government policy that was nothing less than explicit cultural and ethnic genocide.
One of the fallouts from all of this has been the demand by many outraged citizens to remove or demolish the statues of some of the prominent architects and implementors of the residential school system such as John A. MacDonald and Egerton Ryerson, who until recently have been viewed as heroes and prominent pillars of Canadian history.
But this goes beyond just the scandal of the residential schools. There have been similar calls to remove the name of Dundas from numerous street names and geographical entities, because they were named after prominent Scottish politician Henry Dundas who was a strong proponent of the African slave trade. Similarly, down south in the U.S., there have been many who have called for the name of Christopher Columbus to be expunged of his hero status because he was complicit in the oppression, enslavement and brutal murder of the native Americans that he encountered. The same holds true with Andrew Jackson, who, despite his other more positive accomplishments, was complicit in the savage anti-Indian campaigns of his time which are now also viewed by many as genocidal. Under his command, American cavalry forces exterminated whole native villages, slaughtering thousands, including innocent women and children.
Needless to say, there is no shortage of apologists for these prominent historical figures. Their most frequent and common argument is that these people were simply a product of their time, where different moral standards prevailed and they should not be judged by the morality of the 20th century.
To be blunt, such arguments are both specious and morally untenable.
Most of these historical figures professed to be Christian. The essential tenets of Christianity have been in place since Jesus Christ laid them down over two thousand years ago. The biblical ten commandments were laid down even earlier. The atrocities committed against the indigenous populations and African slaves run completely counter to the fundamental principles that are the foundation of any truly Christian civilization. The fact that the religious and political authorities of that day were so corrupted by greed and power as to commit the atrocities that they did, cannot excuse them for the sins that they committed.
Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is nothing ambiguous about these. Most of the perpetrators of these historical crimes were educated and learned people and leaders who were more than familiar with these moral teachings, and yet they deliberately chose to ignore them in favour of materialistic gain or the heady exercise of power.
I should add that basic moral principles go far beyond just the Christian world. Most of the world’s great religions, whose origins go back hundreds and thousands of years, espouse common themes about the equality of all human beings and the essential instruction to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
MacDonald, Ryerson, Dundas, Jackson and others of their ilk knew exactly what they were doing and that it fell outside the boundaries of essential moral principles. They were flawed human beings regardless of whatever else they may have accomplished. We too are all flawed to some extent, but most of us are moral enough to not indulge in torture, oppression and wanton murder. The above named historical figures were given power and authority, and they used it in a way that caused death and misery to thousands if not millions. They should be judged on that basis and not excused because they were “products of their time” when “different moral standards” prevailed. That is a bogus and self-serving argument.