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Friday, April 15, 2011

Editorial - Past present

Past present

Last updated 05:00 11/04/2011
Katie Pickles has stirred up a typical Christchurch row with her suggestion that the city, as it rebuilds from the earthquakes, should turn its back on its colonial past. Its colonial moment is over, Canterbury University's associate professor of history said in a Press Perspective page piece on Friday. The toppling of the statues of the province's founders should be as welcome as the putting into storage of statues of Queen Victoria in independent India. We need a city that reflects our present-day reality – detached politically and financially from Britain, a home to many cultures and religions, increasingly without allegiance to any religion and belonging to the Pacific.

That formula is a challenge to established Christchurch opinion, so it is being debated in that traditional forum for argument, the letters column of The Press. The argument is likely to be hot because it touches on a core issue for Christchurch – its British colonial inheritance – and the reality that this is a time when the built representation of that inheritance may indeed be discarded.

Each of the half-dozen buildings that define Christchurch's founding ideals, and the enthusiasm with which they were taken up with the first generations of settlers, has to some extent been damaged. The core building, the Anglican Cathedral, is severely damaged and may have to be demolished in its entirety. The Provincial Chambers' council room – the most beautiful building in Canterbury and the embodiment of the settlement's nurturing of democracy into a still vital institution – is in ruins. Are they to be rebuilt as facsimiles of the originals, their sites cleared and turned into gardens, or are they to be replaced with structures designed according to the taste of today?

It would be improbable were Pickles' scorched-earth recommendations followed. The majority of citizens would not stand for it, on the sound realisation that the abandonment of a community's history is unhealthy.

The world is full of examples of the social sickness that descends on the deniers of history, as it is full of nations healthy because they acknowledge their past, even when it is problematic.

New Zealand is an example of both things. Its partial denial, for the best part 140 years, of the dissatisfaction of many Maori with colonial policies led to a pent-up anger among the indigenous race. It at least contributed to their lack of progress and could have spilled over into sustained violence. The reversal of the denial of the Maori reality has led to a much healthier New Zealand.

The Canterbury case is a microcosm of what was happening elsewhere in the nation; Ngai Tahu did get a bad deal as the Europeans settled, and the tribe's grievances were ignored for too long.

We do not want now to extend that type of denial to the history of Pakeha in the province, as Katie Pickles seems to be suggesting.

There is no reason to, because there is no escaping the reality of our history – that our forebears imposed a European culture on this region and entrenched its ways in every respect. To say that we can escape that inheritance is to misunderstand human beings, how they seek roots in the past and draw strength from that.

Moreover, it is misguided to characterise Canterbury's colonial history as shameful. A cool mind free from the need to recast the past according to guilt-ridden contemporary theories about the colonial enterprise, judges what the province's founders and the followers did as a high achievement. They created a prosperous and contented society that drew its strength from Europe's ancient civilisation.

Part of the flexibility that inheritance has given us is to accept change and harness it to the betterment of citizens. We see that in play in the evolution of Canterbury from its colonial past: today no one fools themselves beholden to Mother England; we know we are a unique community that has made itself and continues to make itself; we know that Dr Pickles' colonial moment is over and we do not grieve for its passing.

But we also know that the men whose statues were felled on February 22 implanted values that sustain us today and will into the future.

- The Press

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