One challenging part about this job is that you are always learning, at least if you are doing it right. Politics and policy making are complex things. Despite North American media’s lamentable fascination with covering them like they cover sports – scores kept and hot takes and winners and losers – the reality is that there are never clear winners or losers. Politics is never (and should never be) a zero-sum game, and the simpler your answer the more wrong it probably is.
For people doing the work of elected official, there is rarely time for self-reflection. Worse, if we continue the zero-sum sports analogy model of politics, there is nothing to be gained from reflection. Make a decision and move on, hunker down if challenged. But if you are in this to make change, to build a better community or a better world, some decisions stick with you, and cost you as much sleep after you make them as they did before. I’m not saying it’s healthy.
I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the Begbie Statue since casting one of the minority votes against having the statue removed from a its eponymous square. I have also had numerous discussions and read a lot of correspondence on the topic. Since this story resulted more than a dozen TV news reports and the same number of newspaper stories across the province, I even received the benefit of kudos for “taking a stand” from people all over the country.
Problem was, not a single one of them actually knew why I voted the way I did, or even cared to find out. My process concerns and desire for better policy guidance was not noted, they just presumed I was on “their team” in this us vs. them zero-win battle and that my brave stand against the forces of political correctness (ugh) was appreciated. These were hard e-mails to read, and near impossible to reply to. I also talked to people who did not agree with the way I voted, and I have to say they were generally much more aware of my actual concerns, and most expressed appreciation for my attempt to have a fuller understanding of the issue. The difference between the two “camps” was stark.
In the last few months, I have had to read some lamentable commentary on the topic in the dead tree media. Recently, some blow-hard named Douglas Todd was quick to infer intentions in writing without ever taking the time to contact anyone on our Council of from the Tŝilhqot’in to discuss the issue. Not surprisingly, this self-proclaimed expert got the entire argument wrong. I also got to enjoy a recent gaslighting attempt by New Westminster’s own Minister of Absurd Apologetics. I have to admit that reading those commentaries provided real value to me, because they helped me to understand the issues a little better. By beating away at strawmen to provide Facebook clicks for their Postmedia Oberherren, they helped me to better frame my understanding of what my Council colleagues were striving for in the removal of the statue.
It would be wrong for me to overstate the influence these conservative white guys, comfortably shouting from their money-hemorrhaging big media platforms, had on me. Their expressed opinions may have convinced me I had to write this piece, but it wasn’t them that changed my mind. That happened weeks ago around the time that I attended the ceremony where members of the Tŝilhqot’in National Government came down to honour and remember the members of their family that were unjustly killed in New Westminster.
It was then that I started to understand that this is not about the person cast in bronze, and it is not about ancient history. This is about the place, and it is about the now.
Begbie square is a place where the current justice system manifests our continued unjust treatment of Indigenous people. The place where the statue stood overlooked that entrance in a way the statue of Lady Justice did not – not with a blindfold offering balance, but with a Stetson and a pipe, on a pedestal above and staring down on those who would enter. The statue also looked over the old court house yard across Carnarvon Street, figuratively Lording over the very place where the family of the Tŝilhqot’in were killed. You do not have to oppose the idea of there being statues of Judge Begbie displayed in New Westminster or elsewhere to agree that perhaps this one place is the single least appropriate for this symbol. To place it there perpetuates the affront for which our Federal and Provincial governments have already expressed remorse.
Through this lens, it doesn’t matter if Judge Begbie was a racist or he was an ahead-of-his-time defender of the rights of Indigenous peoples (this is where Douglas Todd goes so wrong). The statue that just happens to carry Begbie’s countenance is (as expressed by the plaque on the statue) a representation of a colonial justice system that “brought order” through injustice, standing over where a most egregious injustice took place, and at a place where the impacts of structural injustice still take place today. That could not stand, and should not stand. To claim we are “erasing history” is a silly distraction; removing it acknowledges history.
I expressed concern during our Council deliberations about whether we had really done the work to remove the statue. I did not feel we had consulted with the community, with the Tŝilhqot’in, with the Qayqayt and other nations about this act. As we were only beginning our community’s Truth and Reconciliation journey, I was concerned the outcome of an action seen by many as provocative was getting us off on the wrong foot, and would close ears and hearts before the conversation started.
Then the Tŝilhqot’in honoured us by sharing their commemoration with us, and were able to tell us their stories about what this injustice meant to them as a people, the pivotal impact the loss of those leaders had on their community, how their quest to know where the remains of their family are. The true story of this place was related to me in a way it had not before. These are not my stories to tell, but after hearing them and recognizing that this is not ancient history to them, but something that they still experience today, I was lead to reconsider the importance of the symbol of the statue and of the place.
I suppose I err too often in pondering over process and policy and not enough about the importance of action. Even when I was a “rabble rouser” about town, I was always trying to think of how we can creatively and cajolingly make change happen through system shift instead of just showing up at Council guns cocked demanding change. Sometimes it worked, but that is probably a reflection of my privilege more than any kind of superpower I may have. Reconciliation is going to be a different experience, and it will challenge all of us to think about our assumptions, our processes, and our privilege.
It is clear to me now that that removing the statue was the right thing to do, perhaps I just wasn’t brave enough to agree that the time was now. I was wrong, the time was overdue.