Toppled John A. Macdonald statue shouldn't be put back, Montreal committee advises

The head and body of a statue of Sir John A. MacDonald are shown torn down following a demonstration in Montreal, Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press - image credit)
The head and body of a statue of Sir John A. MacDonald are shown torn down following a demonstration in Montreal, Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press - image credit)

More than two years after it was knocked from its lofty perch by protesters, a statue of John A. Macdonald is unlikely to be restored after a city of Montreal committee advised against it.

The statue was pulled to the ground in August 2020 by a small group of protesters at the end of a demonstration calling for the defunding of Montreal police, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

The force of the fall separated the statue's head from its body.

An ad hoc committee was asked to make recommendations about what to do next with the bronze statue. On Monday, it released its preliminary assessment.

"Considering the assimilative and genocidal policies he implemented on Indigenous peoples and the discriminatory acts he perpetrated against several groups of people, in the spirit of the reconciliation process, it is necessary to distance ourselves from this legacy of John A. Macdonald," the committee said.

The committee suggested finding another way to acknowledge the leader's legacy, including through artistic means.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press
Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The statue, erected in 1895, was meant to celebrate Canada's first prime minister and his role in Confederation, but in the last decades it instead became a focus of anger.

In 1992, it was decapitated on the anniversary of the hanging of Louis Riel, the Métis leader and founder of Manitoba, whom Macdonald had executed as a traitor.

By 2020, the statue had become a frequent target of vandalism and was repeatedly splashed with red paint as his treatment and policies toward Indigenous people, particularly the establishment of the residential school system, came under increased scrutiny.

'History is not fixed'

Ronald Rudin, a professor emeritus at Concordia University's history department, had called for the statue not to be replaced.

Rudin's work often tackles how to commemorate the past — especially painful pasts.

In an interview Monday, Rudin said he worries the city will stop at erecting a simple plaque or creating a virtual mobile app.

Instead, Rudin suggested rotating artworks by artists from communities that have been harmed by Macdonald's legacy, or using projections at the site where the statue once stood.

"We have to recognize that history is not fixed," Rudin said. "There may be people we celebrate today — that if we put up permanent structures, a certain number of years from now we won't feel the same about them."

As an example of a post-statue success story, Rudin mentioned the Fourth Plinth in London's Trafalgar Square, where an empty statue podium hosts a rotating cast of sculptures and has become a popular tourist attraction.

But he says the place where the John A. Macdonald statue was in Place du Canada should be more political.

"I would propose that we make this kind of a space for those people who are affected by Macdonald's policies, really lead the way in saying and suggesting how we might use a space like this in order to respond to his legacy."