Worldwide outrage against police brutality and systemic racism has resulted in protests that are toppling statues of slave traders, imperialists and other infamous figures. The growing movement has reignited discussions about how public monuments may perpetuate the normalization of inequality and structural violence.
Spurred by the police killing of George Floyd, an African-American man in Minnesota, protesters across the United States have vandalized and removed dozens of Confederate monuments since early June. As the movement has rippled throughout the world, pressure has been mounting to confront Canada’s own symbols of colonialism.
Two years after a statue of John A. MacDonald was removed in Victoria, BC, a petition to remove his monument in Montreal has gathered over 28,000 signatures. Genocidal policies employed by Canada’s first prime minister included forcing Indigenous peoples onto reserves using starvation, the most oppressive elements of the Indian Act and the creation of the residential school system.
“I’m sick of looking at John A. MacDonald,” said Charmaine Nelson, an art historian at McGill University, who is quoted in the petition. “If you want to talk about him, let’s talk about his whole history. Monuments become a focus of our ire because they’re so emblematic of systemic racism – the landscape is so clearly about white men.”
She argues that placing such figures quite literally on a pedestal is a type of “hero worship” and a constant reminder of ongoing injustice for Black and Indigenous peoples. Correcting that inequality is an idea whose time has come.
“Police brutality is so in our faces that even white people can’t turn away this time,” Nelson told the Nation. “What a lot of us are saying, and Indigenous and Black people have for a long time, is these people didn’t do any good as far as we’re concerned. It’s not that we’re just saying this now, but finally people are listening to us.”
Other subjects of controversial statues include James McGill, who not only kept Indigenous and Black slaves but was also an importer of Caribbean goods harvested by enslaved Blacks. As one of only 10 Black professors among the 1,700 permanent faculty members at McGill University, Nelson cringes each time she passes the McGill statue on campus. Another petition gaining momentum proposes replacing this statue with a tree.
“We know he was a slave owner and never intended us to occupy that space, participating in the institution he founded,” Nelson asserted. “Imagine how uncomfortable I feel on a daily basis because people don’t recognize me and my identity as a professor. How do they get away with that lack of inclusivity? They have not had to consider it before because they’ve not had any pressure. That’s why the institution looks the way it does. To me, this is all connected.”
Last semester, Nelson began one class about the Black subject in pop culture by reading a list of Black people killed by police, making a connection between these murders and the racist stereotypes that have long dominated media. In these images, as well as the monuments that populate our landscapes, representation is significant – in Nelson’s words, “The deck’s loaded against you before you even show up in the room.”
Canadian monuments often represent a mythology limited to so-called “Fathers of Confederation” who helped design systems that oppressed Indigenous people and other minorities. Critics say this is a whitewashed narrative that is increasingly out of place in a diverse Canada that professes to value truth and reconciliation.
“If Montreal wants to promote human rights, it’s a contradiction to have the statues,” said Eric Pouliot-Thisdale, a Mohawk-Innu genealogist. “We’ll never forget those people, part of the foundation of Canada, but we don’t need to have them in our faces every morning. Everybody is realizing it, but nobody is ready to move yet.”
While the city has said it is seeking to address systemic racism, there are no immediate plans to remove the statues. The Black Lives Matter protests have accelerated similar movements in Quebec and throughout the world, demonstrating that when authorities move too slowly to make these changes the people will do it themselves.
“All institutions have to address their history,” said Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, head of University of British Columbia’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre. “I’m not advocating destruction, but I understand why people do that, because civic authorities won’t engage. Taking down statues is a good step when no one will have that conversation.”
The noted lawyer and judge originally from Muskeg Lake Cree Nation is an enthusiastic proponent of this “overdue” movement. She understands the visceral reaction provoked by oppressive symbols, describing the anger she still feels walking down a Vancouver street named after Joseph Trutch, infamous for his dispossession of Indigenous lands.
“I don’t think descendants of slaves can walk by a plantation and have no feeling,” Turpel-Lafond told the Nation. “How oppressive it must be to have no space to have that dialogue. It’s negative to depict this as a destructive movement. It’s actually constructing a more historical narrative based on truth.”
Although there are growing calls to revisit our understanding of Canadian history, not everyone agrees that these statues should be torn down. For example, plaques have been affixed beside various offending statues to provide valuable historical context about their controversial nature.
“These names provide a reminder of a history that cannot be forgotten, that cannot be repeated, and what we must guard against,” stated David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Metis Federation. “We cannot allow colonial history to merely slink away and escape judgment.”
Another more popular solution involves moving these statues to a museum where they can serve as educational tools in a post-colonial setting. Budapest, Hungary, diverted all its Soviet-era statues to a park outside town, where visitors listen to tinny communist anthems over outdoor speakers as children crawl over a giant bust of Lenin, and browse a solid historical museum for context.
“Let’s hold them in a museum,” suggested Turpel-Lafond. “These are macabre reminders of a colonial system. Those doors have been slammed shut for years. Now they’re opening, people are listening, things are changing, and it’s needed. It’s exciting times.”