opinion page

Saturday, August 4, 2012 * Fort Erie Times 7 Saturday, August 4, 2012 * Fort Erie Times 7

Historical author responds to feud over flags in Ridgeway

Dear Editor, I am the historian that Mr. Derrick Dea of the Ridgeway BIA is quoted in the Fort Erie Times claiming my input in the BIA's choice of the municipal banner image to commemorate the 1866 Battle of Ridgeway, which Mr. Dea also mistakenly states appeared in my book, Ridgeway: The American Fenian Invasion and the 1866 Battle That Made Canada. That image chosen by the BIA is a contemporary American Fenian propaganda image with no historical veracity and does not appear in the pages of my book and I was not directly consulted by the BIA about its use as a municipal banner. It is entirely inappropriate and offensive for that purpose. I am, however, instrumental in how that image came to be chosen by the BIA and must take some of the responsibility. In November 2011, under the impression that they were to be used to promote a reception for my book and a conference on the Battle of Ridgeway at a literary weekend scheduled in June 2012, I furnished the Ridgeway Reads Literary Festival with two images. My understanding was that the images would be used during the Festival on a temporary banner that would come down after the festival. Since no iconic images existed from the Canadian point-of-view and because these images were in dramatic colour suitable for large format imaging, I sent two historic Fenian

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propaganda images: one horizontal, a well-known but historically inaccurate American Fenian depiction of the two sides clashing in line formation, which apparently hangs or has hung in the Ridgeway High School and is familiar to most Canadians and frequently appears in our text books, and a lesser-known vertical image, called "The Green Over the Red" depicting a victorious Fenian standing proudly over three dead or wounded redcoats and a fourth soldier humiliated and begging for mercy, also an exaggerated Fenian propaganda image produced in the United States, which the BIA chose to adopt for use on a permanent municipal commemorative banner without my knowledge. I suspect that the particular image was chosen only because it fit neatly the vertical format of the banners and for its colourful 'visibility' from street level and its inherent drama. (Those were precisely the reasons why I chose it to promote my book at the literary festival.) The other image, the horizontal one, would have had to be reduced or cropped and enlarged to fit that format and might have been less 'readable.' Those were the only two images submitted on the assumption that they were temporary images for BIA-sponsored banners promoting the literary event and not permanent municipal historical commemorative installations. Upon arriving in Ridgeway on June 2, to participate in the Festival, I was shocked to see that the Fenian propa- ganda image was adopted as a permanent municipal iconic commemorative device on twelve banners attached to lamp posts in the town centre! Being a guest in Ridgeway, and seeing that the banners had now been printed and installed, I thought it impolite to raise the issue with my kind hosts and hoped nobody would know enough to be offended by the choice. My silence was my mistake in underestimating the Canadian historical intellect and our people's vigour to defend our national heritage and I commend the citizens of Ridgeway who came out to protest the choice of that image and the elegant way they chose to express their frustration. The objections raised by Rick Doan and his Fenian Soakers are not as some allege a question of 'changing history' or even about the 'accurate depiction' of what actually happened at Ridgeway, but of the iconic intent of the original image and its current use as a memorial symbol in a permanent municipal display intending to commemorate the town of Ridgeway's place in Canada's historic military heritage. As such, the use of an exaggerated Fenian propaganda poster for such a purpose, is no more appropriate then commemorating Canada's military heritage in the Raid on Dieppe in 1942, a battle we lost, with a Nazi propaganda poster celebrating the German victory over Canadian troops, or commemorating Canada's role in Afghanistan using a Taliban poster portraying a successful insurgent attack against a Canadian patrol, even if historically correct (not that I intend here to suggest that the Irish republican Fenian insurgents were akin to Nazis or the Taliban.) I commend the BIA's decision to commemorate the Battle of Ridgeway, but never being in direct contact with them, through an error of miscommunication, Mr. Derrick Dea and the BIA acting in good faith drew upon the image for an entirely different purpose than I had thought it was intended for when I first submitted it to the Ridgeway Reads Literary Festival in November 2011. That image, however, remains entirely inappropriate for an iconic commemorative purpose. The argument that the image is a historically accurate representation of the defeat of the Canadian militia at Ridgeway is not exactly valid either. Before the Battle of Ridgeway, the Fenians were headed towards the Welland Canal, an although they were victorious at Ridgeway, in the wake of the resolute defence put up by the Canadians, the Fenians were shaken and turned back for the safety of Fort Erie across the river from their home base in Buffalo. (One must not forget that as many Fenians were killed at Ridgeway as Canadians.) The use of that propagandistic image of a Fenian insurgent with prostrate Canadian troops at his feet as a municipal commemorative device is not even appropriate for the lamp posts of Dublin today, as there is currently underway between the Irish peoples and those of Britain an historic ongoing reconciliation process towards a permanent peace, as represented by Her Majesty's ground breaking visit to Ireland last year when she laid a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin, which honours republicans who died fighting British rule, and her recent historic meeting in Belfast in June with Sinn Fein MP Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander. The use of that image municipally is out of step with these positive historical developments on both sides of what we hope after centuries is now a late past conflict. Please let me know how I can help to fix this. I am prepared to meet with the Ridgeway BIA to explain this issue to them from a historians point-of-view, help them choose a different image to commemorate the battle that does not depict the humiliation of either side, but most importantly, an image appropriate for commemorating an event in which Canadians bravely fell during a defence of our home against a foreign invading insurgent enemy. Perhaps an image can be taken from Paul Gosen's new mural in the town, or an image of a figure from the 1866 Volunteers Monument at Queen's Park, or portraits of the actual soldiers who fell at Ridgeway, or even a cropped version of the other (more neutral) iconic image of the two sides equally clashing, even if historically inaccurate, familiar to every- one. I am prepared to find and propose appropriate alternative images for a commemorative purpose to replace the current one. (Although I would argue that one or two of the current one, if used among others, would be acceptable as it would no longer be the single iconic commemorative image, but part of the 'stream' of historical images which would soften its iconic power with a broader historical veracity. But as a 'definitive' commemorative symbol by itself, that image is inappropriate.) As well, I am prepared to donate $200 towards the printing of new banners since I was partly instrumental in this unfortunate misunderstanding. The intentions of the Ridgeway BIA are commendable and I understand in these tough economic times their initial gut reaction "you cannot please everybody" and that the image is "historically accurate" and "we are sticking to our guns." It's not about the historical veracity but that the images as municipal commemorative memorial icons of Canada's military heritage are absolutely inappropriate. Yours truly, Peter Vronsky, Ph.d. Historian and Author Ridgeway: The American Fenian Invasion and the 1866 Battle That Made Canada

Community Shred Day

is coming Saturday, September 15, 2012

In partnership with Shred-it we are hosting Community Shred Day 10am - 2pm at our Garrison Road Branch. Donations to C.O.P.E. will be gratefully accepted

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