Heads often roll in revolutions. In Canada’s case, it was the bronze head of Canada’s first prime minister, John. A. Macdonald. The statue was toppled by “defund the police” protesters in Montreal on August 29. The move was condemned by our current PM, Justin Trudeau, who has often presented himself as a progressive and Indigenous ally. The Conservative Party’s new leader, Erin O’Toole, has also commented on the toppling of the statue, saying that it “dooms Canada to forget the lessons of history.”
However, this brings forth a question that has haunted countless statues that have been torn down around the world. From #RhodesMustFall in South Africa in 2015 to the Stonewall Jackson Monument in Richmond, Virginia, which was torn down in July following Black Lives Matter protests. The question being: what history are we choosing to remember? Furthermore, how do we condone figures who were once idolized but are now representing outdated morals and social norms? The John. A. Macdonald statue is an excellent example of this. Macdonald is often portrayed as the “Father” of Canada, and without Macdonald, it can be argued that our nation would not exist today.
Yet, the memory of Macdonald seeks to glorify his few good actions while ignoring his heinous crimes against fellow Canadians. Macdonald established residential schools during his years in power that Indigenous children were forced to attend to be “re-educated” on cultural and societal practices. Moreover, Macdonald contributed to the establishment of an unjust, racist justice system and the isolation of Indigenous communities from Canadian society.
As a result of Canada’s history and Macdonald’s actions, racist ideologies are now embedded in Canada’s society and systemic practices, from the horrific reality of the hundreds of indigenous women who are murdered or missing to the subtler stereotypes that insidiously imply indigenous people leech off of taxpayer money. The last residential school in Canada only closed down in 1996. Not to mention, Indigenous populations across Canada continue to experience intergenerational trauma of having their identities and culture erased.
The overall argument in favour of keeping Macdonald’s statue, and statues, by and large, is that by tearing them down, history is being erased. However, in my opinion, the real history that is being erased is Macdonald’s horrific and deeply racist actions towards Indigenous groups, which continues to create inequalities for them in Canada today.
So, how do we come to terms with these often admired historical figures without “erasing” history? I believe that keeping these statues up glorifies and memorializes figures who instigated great harm, which is still felt through generational trauma today. Thus, I have a few suggestions on how we can keep these statues of political figures up without erasing the dark history of Canada, while also acknowledging the systemic racist policies that Canada dislikes coming to terms with.
Museums have existed for many years. They exist to preserve and teach us about history by providing the context and focus needed to understand the past. Thus, placing Macdonald’s statue in a museum can make space for both the good he did and the terrible actions he caused. This way, no history is erased, nor is it glorified to portray Macdonald as a hero.
Another method is to add a plaque to Macdonald’s statue acknowledging his actions, since some citizens, like Francious Legault, the premier of Quebec, find the removal of a historic figure from the public sphere to be offensive. The plaque could serve as a compromise between both sides of the debate and would display the duality of our first PM.
Of course, we must acknowledge that history does not always align with the political culture of a country. Today, Canadian culture and identity build on the idea that Canada is an inclusive country, where people from all backgrounds are welcome. Canadians pride themselves on being less polarized than our neighbours to the south. Yet, the rhetoric surrounding the statue being taken down reflects our similarities to the United States.
Canada’s inability to reckon with the inappropriate actions of its idolized “founders” sets us back from becoming a truly diverse country. Until Canada stops erasing Indigenous history and the role that Macdonald played in it, justice and peace will never be found.
https://www.vancourier.com/learn-the-lessons-of-history-don-t-cancel-them-new-tory-leader-o-toole-says-1.24199781 Levitz, Stephanie, September 9th 2020,, The Canadian Press, Accessed September 08th 2020
https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2020/07/photos-statues-removed-george-floyd-protests-began/613774/, Taylor, Alan, July 02nd, 2020, The Atlantic, Accessed September 08th 2020