Back to the bronze age?

These are tough times for once-revered public figures who have been cast in bronze.

In the U.S., a plan to remove a controversial statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, led to a riot on Aug. 12 that resulted in one person dead and 19 injured in clashes between competing groups of protesters.

In Canada, the future of Halifax founder Edward Cornwallis’s towering bronze statue is in doubt as protesters of his dark legacy of treatment of Indigenous Peoples have called for its toppling.

Far removed from this maelstrom, a well-meaning group of artists and supporters in and around Parksville has stepped forward to plan and propose a life-size bronze monument to longtime resident “Flying” Phil St. Luke.

It’s too soon to tell if this statue plan will, well, fly. But it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which large and passionate groups of people would clash over his legacy.

Lee, the former U.S. military officer who switched sides when the Confederate states of the south attempted to break away from the union by seceding in 1860, is viewed by critics as a symbol — and supporter — of the institution of slavery that the breakaway southern states were trying to preserve.

Cornwallis, the former governor of Nova Scotia, is credited with the founding of Halifax. He’s also acknowledged as having issued a bounty on Mi’kmaq scalps, a policy that understandably does not sit well with the descendants of those Aboriginal people.

One might argue Lee and Cornwallis were both products of their day and the political and cultural reality of those places and eras. But that rather overlooks the fact that Lee’s Charlottesville statue was not erected until more than 50 years after the end of the U.S. Civil War, in a community to which he had no ties. Cornwallis waited even longer for the forge. His 1931 statue went up on the 182nd anniversary of his arrival in the community that became Halifax. While his legacy will be wedded for all time to Halifax, statue or no statue, his monument has been described by historian John G. Reid as, “an assertion and a resounding expression of imperial triumph.”

The subject of the Parksville statue bid is a large, physically imposing man who was a standout athlete for decades. But Phil St. Luke is not a “powerful” man in the sense of the word that would have been applied to Cornwallis or Lee.

A 63-year-old who has lived his life with developmental disability, Phil St. Luke has earned the affection of generations of Parksville residents by maintaining a relentlessly optimistic outlook on life and his fellow humans, and sharing it at every opportunity.

It will be up to Parksville’s city council to ultimately decide on the issue of a statue to make “Flying Phil” not only a man of his time, but a man for all times.

— Parksville Qualicum Beach News

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