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Wellington or Macdonald? Gardiner on Gardner!

August 1st, 2010

Occasionally you just stumble upon something that is so well written, an argument so clearly laid out, that you have to acknowledge it. So it is with Ottawa Citizen columnist Dan Gardner’s column yesterday on renaming Wellington Street in Ottawa to Macdonald Street.

I have no dog in the fight, didn’t even know the controversy existed until I read this. But of course, the controversy always exists, in every town and city. There’s always some street or park that somebody wants changed, and this is the clearest argument against the practice in principle I have seen:

A city is a monument

A river delta is a monument to its own history. Every moment, every day, silt tumbling along in the river comes to the slow, sluggish waters of the delta and it settles on what was there before. The next moment, the next day, new silt settles. And so it goes for years, decades, centuries, and millennia. A delta, no matter how great and grand, is nothing more than an accumulation of passing moments. Generations, we might call them. And they’re all there, faithfully recorded, in the layers below.

A city is like that. A generation learns, builds, plays, lives. They add to the city. Another generation does the same. And another. Slowly, the city grows and changes but always, beneath the bustle of the present, lies the past that is its foundation. A city is a monument to its own history.

Prior to the 18th century, this is all there was to the development of cities. People came, they worked, they built homes and streets. There was seldom a central plan and regulation was haphazard, at best. There weren’t even official names for streets.

If butchers set up at a certain spot, and a track developed alongside, and the track became a lane, people may have called it “the lane with the butchers,” or “the butchers lane.” Or later, “Butcher Lane.” As the surroundings developed, the butchers may have gone elsewhere. In time, they may have been forgotten. But still, people would call it “Butcher Lane.” And they would shrug if asked why.

London’s famous Pall Mall got its name from the French game of “Paille-maille,” a precursor to croquet, which was first played there in the early 17th century. I’m sure few of those who throng Pall Mall every day know that. London is stuffed with such relics. Many are even more obscure. A “pickadill” is a sort of stiff collar, but accounts vary as to why that word became attached to the place known as Piccadilly.

Layer upon layer, generation upon generation, the city grows. London is the Thames’s true delta.

The 18th century brought Enlightenment, so the textbooks tell us, and Enlightenment brought planning. There were official maps and official street names. Buildings were numbered…

Lafayette Park, directly opposite the White House, may be one of the most evocative locations in the United States, but it is named for a man of little relevance to today’s Americans and we can be sure that if the park were constructed today there would be a thousand suggestions for what it should be named and none would be the name of that Revolutionary War hero…

The debate about renaming Wellington Street in honour of Sir John A. Macdonald has been muddled from the start. Supporters such as Bob Plamondon and Andrew Cohen emphasize the prominence of the street and the importance of Macdonald to today’s Canada. The Duke of Wellington — who never set foot in Canada, they always add — simply isn’t relevant to Canadians today.

Oh, but Wellington is relevant, the critics respond. He was responsible for funding the Rideau Canal and without the canal Ottawa as we know it would not exist.

Supporters answer that Wellington was a nasty aristocrat who opposed responsible government. Critics shoot back that Macdonald was a drunk who put his hand in the till…

The assumption underlying this debate is what is relevant to us — what we want to honour, what serves our purposes — is all that matters. The city is merely raw material. We may dredge the delta, and excavate it, and pave it over, as and when we wish.

As G.K. Chesterton is reputed to have written, but probably didn’t, this is “the tyranny of the living.” Past generations do not exist. Ignore them. What they built and dreamed, what they honoured, is of no concern. We are all that matters…

Ah hell, just read it all yourself.


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