Canada’s 'tipping point': How statues have become 'flashpoints' in the conversation about reconciliation

A statue of John A. Macdonald, which has since been removed, is seen outside Victoria’s City Hall. (The Canadian Press)

Outside Victoria, B.C.’s city hall stands an unassuming black metal plaque. It was installed earlier this month, but has already been repaired. Less than 24 hours after it was put in place, an “X” was scraped into the message on its surface.

In 2017, the City of Victoria began a journey of Truth and Reconciliation with the Lekwungen peoples, the Songhees and Esquimalt nations, on whose territories the city stands,” the message reads.

They are the same words that were on the original plaque, which lets visitors to Victoria’s City Hall know the plaque is a replacement for a statue of John A. Macdonald.

“The City, the Nations and the wider community grapple with Macdonald’s complex history as both the first Prime Minister of Canada and a leader of violence against Indigenous Peoples,” the plaque’s message continues.

The figure of Macdonald stood in the same spot until it was removed on August 10 and put into storage. The City of Victoria made the decision as part of what Mayor Lisa Helps says is an ongoing consultation process on how to advance reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. Helps says the city’s reconciliation committee recommended the removal of the statue.

It’s a symbol of the painful past,” she said. ‘If we want to have a broader conversation with the community about reconciliation, which we do, the Nations said the first step to that is to remove the statue from the front steps of City Hall.”

“The discussion will continue… and we’ll figure out an appropriate place in the city and an appropriate context for the statue,” she told Yahoo Canada News.

A second plaque has been installed to replace a bronze statue of Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald after it was vandalized shortly after the removal of the statue over the weekend. People walk by the plaque daily as it stands in front of City Hall Victoria, B.C., on Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018. (Photo by Chad Hipolito, The Canadian Press)

‘History can’t be erased’

The move has attracted attention, praise and fury across Canada.

Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer tweeted “we should not allow political correctness to erase our history.”

The Doug Ford government in Ontario even offered to install the statue in the province, which Victoria declined. It should be noted Ontario already has a statue of Macdonald outside its legislature.

“History can’t be erased,” Helps told Yahoo Canada News. “Removing a statue does not remove the fact of John A. Macdonald. I would say it’s impossible to erase history.”

“What we’re proposing to do,” she continued, “is have a broader conversation and a broader context about the role of John A. Macdonald and that he played.”

Helps has since said the statue will be moved to another public space in the city, and she also apologized for the way the process was handled, saying she hadn’t realized some people felt excluded and wanted to participate in reconciliation.

While there has been a lot of noise over Victoria’s Macdonald statue, the source of the clamor is not new. It is not the only Macdonald monument to come into question in recent years, nor is it the first of a Canadian historical figure to be removed due to controversy over that person’s treatment of Indigenous peoples.

An expert on Macdonald and an Indigenous advocate say the move and reaction to it – shows Canada is having a deep conversation about its myths, identity, and how it has treated those who were here before Europeans arrived. They say it shows how Canada is changing and may be at a critical point in its history.

“I think we’ve reached this tipping point where Canada has recognized it’s had a massive human rights failure in dealing respectfully with Indigenous peoples,” says Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, an Indigenous lawyer, judge, child rights advocate and the director of the University of British Columbia’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre.

“There’s a very significant pushback, and Indigenous people feel that although Canada can apologize at a certain level for residential schools or provide some nominal compensation to those who are survivors of these schools, the really pernicious, long-term reconciliation is going to require addressing Canada’s history at a deeper level.

“That is just not happening yet. It’s happening too slowly… There’s a lot of unfinished business in Canada.”

Residential school survivor Lorna Standingready is comforted by a fellow survivor in the audience during the closing ceremony of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Wednesday, June 3, 2015. (Photo by Sean Kilpatrick, The Canadian Press)

‘A symbol of a painful past’

For more than 100 years, an estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were removed from their homes and forcibly sent to residential schools, which were operated by Canadian churches and funded by the federal government. Physical, sexual and mental abuse were rampant in the schools, and the children were forbidden from using their native languages. Overcrowding was common, food was inadequate and sanitation was poor. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimates between 3,200 to more than 6,000 of these children died in the schools, though the full number is unknown. 

Macdonald and his government were the creators of the Indian Act, which determined who was Indigenous, along with reserve lands and most federal policies for interaction with Indigenous peoples. The Macdonald government was also an architect of the residential school system.

In an 1883 speech to the House of Commons, Macdonald said an Indigenous child who is not sent to a residential school is “simply a savage who can read and write.” In its 2015 report, issued the same year Canada marked the 200th anniversary of Macdonald’s birth, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called the system “cultural genocide.” A 2015 Angus Reid poll found most Canadians agreed with the use of the term, but were “deeply divided” on issues of reconciliation.

Helps told Yahoo Canada News this is why Victoria’s Indigenous peoples find the statue difficult to look at and walk past into city hall.

“It’s a symbol of the painful past,” she said.

A statue of Edward Cornwallis is seen during its removal from a park also named after Cornwallis in Halifax. (Photo by CBC News)

“Lightning rods” and “flashpoints”

In January, Halifax removed its statue of General Edward Cornwallis, the city’s founder, from a park that also bears his name. In recent years, there were increasing protests against the statue and the name of the park, and the statue was the target of vandalism.  Activists pointed out Cornwallis issued a “so-called scalping proclamation,” in which there was a cash bounty offered to anybody who killed one of Halifax’s Mi’kmaw people.

Brendan Elliott, a communications advisor with Halifax Regional Municipality, called the statue a “lightning rod of discontent.”

“When First Nations people look at that statue, it’s a reminder for them – and a very hurtful reminder – of their history with this city,” he told Yahoo Canada News.   

Elliott said Halifax has since set up a reconciliation committee that is arm’s length from council. Part of its mandate is to determine what to do with the statue, the name of the park, and also the name of Cornwallis Street. The final decision will be up to council, he said.

“History is always there. It’s not being erased,” Elliott said. “The statue itself is a reminder of the significant role he played. When I say ‘significant,’ I don’t necessarily mean all in a positive way. It’s a reminder of somebody who played a big role in founding the city of Halifax.”

A man takes a photo of a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald after it was vandalized Monday, November 13, 2017 in Montreal. The statue appears covered in what appeared to be red paint with profanity painted at the base of the monument. (Photo by Ryan Remiorz, The Canadian Press)

Randy Boswell, an Ottawa journalist who edited a book of essays that commemorated the 200th anniversary of Macdonald’s birth, said he’s not surprised statues have become “flashpoints.”

Statues are “objects of veneration” and “landmarks on our landscape” which people “view as permanent,” Boswell says. But Canadians are recognizing there are “other perspectives on history” as the reconciliation process continues.

“In terms of the landscape of celebration, if we can put it that way, there are a lot of gaps,” he says. “We don’t have a lot of statues celebrating the achievements of women in Canada. We have very few monuments to Indigenous people.

“Relatively speaking, the dial is heavy towards white male fathers of Confederation and other builders of the country at a time when women did not have full rights, a number of other groups including immigrants were marginalized, and so the story of our country is warped as a result.”

“A correction”

But, is removing a statue really part of reconciliation? Will it advance it, or is it a distraction? The Truth and Reconciliation Report made 94 calls to action. These included improvements to Indigenous child welfare, education, health, language and culture, justice, legal equity, implementation and recognition of Indigenous rights, and more.

Turpel-Lafond pointed out that the report also called for symbolic acts of reconciliation, but says there is much more work to be done.

Commission chairman Justice Murray Sinclair raises his arm asking residential school survivors to stand at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa on June 2, 2015. (Photo by Adrian Wyld, The Canadian Press)

But Sen. Murray Sinclair, himself the former chair of the TRC, warned against removing statues, saying it, “smacks of revenge.” He said Canada should work to honour Indigenous histories and heritage in different ways. 

John Dann, the statue’s creator, wrote to Helps that he was “honoured” if the statue can start a conversation about Macdonald’s complicated legacy, but said he wasn’t sure removing the statue was the right move, according to the Times Colonist.

Nor, it seems, is Liberal MP Catherine McKenna, who is responsible for Parks Canada as part of her role as Minister of the Environment and Climate Change.

McKenna told The Canadian Press she has asked Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, run by Parks Canada, to examine concerns over similar statues, and she suggested installing another statue, monument or plaque next to the one in question to represent Indigenous history and address the concerns.

A passer-by looks up at a statue of Egerton Ryerson outside Toronto’s Ryerson University on Thursday July 6, 2017. The downtown University is named for Egerton Ryerson, a pioneer of public education in Ontario. There is a push to change the University’s name out of respect for residential school survivors. (Photo by Chris Young, The Canadian Press)

That’s something Toronto’s Ryerson University did in July, when it placed a plaque next to the statue of its namesake and founder, Egerton Ryerson. The school said this was done in response to the TRC Report’s calls to action to point out the connection Ryerson’s founder has to the residential schools system. There have also been calls for Ryerson to change its name.

“To me, this is as much as anything, a correction, a reinterpretation,” Boswell says. “We’re in a period of challenge, and I think… we’re going to have flashpoints like this.”

Turpel-Lafond said she doesn’t think Victoria’s move is an act of revenge, and said she thinks it was done through extensive consultation. While the idea of removing something from a space to illuminate a truth might sound contradictory, Turpel-Lafond said taking these statues down is actually about the re-emergence of histories that have been made invisible, and said that is part of reconciliation.

“[Reconciliation] has to happen,” Turpel-Lafond says. “It’s probably not going to be easy, and I’m not saying the removal of a statue is all that’s going on, but one can only step back and say if people didn’t see this coming, then they obviously don’t know anything about what’s been going on for the last 50 years in Canada.”