John A. Macdonald statue

Photos by No Borders Media

Statues aren’t history, they’re symbolism we should be questioning

“Nations and people evolve and so should the public space honouring what we collectively consider to be worthy of celebration.”

Ever since I watched footage of the John A. Macdonald statue being toppled off its pedestal by masked protesters after a Defund the Police rally in downtown Montreal last Saturday — his head spectacularly bouncing off the ground — I’ve followed the heated debate and growing outrage about the motives and methods of those responsible.

Both Quebec Premier François Legault and Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante denounced the act of vandalism and condemned the actions as unacceptable. “Destroying our history isn’t the solution,” tweeted Legault, while Plante tweeted that, while she understood the motivation behind the acts, she would have preferred a more peaceful resolution. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was “disappointed.” Even former Part Québécois leader Jean-François Lisée (certainly no fan of French-hating Macdonald) said on Twitter that he would “not bow to mob rule and vandalism, whatever the mob, whatever the motive.”

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney kicked it up a notch in the hand-wringing and screeching condemnations department and called the people responsible for removing the statue “roving bands of thugs” and a “mob” responsible for the “violence” against a historical figure whose “sacrifice and vision” he lauded. Kenney even urged the City of Montreal to send the statue to Alberta if it chooses not to restore and remount it at Place du Canada. “We would be happy to receive it for installation on the grounds of Alberta’s legislature,” he eagerly tweeted, never one to waste a politically opportune flag-wrapping moment for self-gain.

Unlike some people’s disappointment at politicians’ reactions, I’m not surprised. You can’t possibly ask them to openly condone the destruction of public property, whatever their personal beliefs. It goes against the democratic process of consensus-building to do so and encourages copy-cat acts. But whether they approve or not, it’s irrelevant.

Not erasure of history, a correction of history

Public, deeply symbolic acts of protest and awareness-building like this are also part of democracy. Even if some see the protest as a violent action instigated by a few “thugs” who can’t possibly represent the will of the people, they conveniently forget it wasn’t really the will of the people who put that statue there in the first place. Only a select few decided that. Do we honestly think that it’s pure coincidence that almost all our public statues benevolently looking down on us are of white men in politics or is this group particularly adept at posing for full-length carvings in durable materials?

While I don’t have the type of personality that would feel compelled to topple a statue, I really have no strong feelings about it. I think some people are really bothered by the “lawlessness” of it all (as if history hasn’t already taught us how often “legal” and “law” have proven to be the antithesis of true social justice and morality.) The act itself makes them uneasy… “Where do we draw the line?” is often posed as a question. Perhaps at genocidal leaders?

I find it deeply curious that we flinch at the “violence” of an inanimate bronze statue crashing to the ground (an act where no living being was physically injured) and yet seem unbothered by the state-sanctioned democratically elected violence that allowed Macdonald to implement systems that caused countless deaths and so much destruction. Isn’t it funny how we’re far too eager to give bad leaders a pass (those were different times and mores, we shouldn’t judge yesterday’s leaders by today’s standards, he did some good stuff too, etc.) while we attribute all manners of ignorance and destructive tendencies to people who simply want a more inclusive and fair world for all?

A celebration of brutal colonialism

While I neither encourage nor condone defacing and damaging public property, I really can’t get worked up about a hunk of bronze metal erected by a bunch of white men back in 1895 who thought women didn’t have a right to vote and considered Indigenous peoples savages, worthy of starvation, assimilation and eventual annihilation. Why should we be interested in preserving a legacy based on those values?

Macdonald’s main goal was to build a national railroad. In order to do so, he starved Indigenous tribes on the Prairies to force them onto reserves. He and his government were responsible for countless deaths from famine. Macdonald implemented the Indian residential system, which later led to the Indian Act, which banned powwows, potlatches and speaking Indigenous languages. The goal was total assimilation.

Macdonald was also fervently anti-French and was, by rejecting calls for clemency, responsible for Métis leader and founder of Manitoba Louis Riel’s hanging. While Riel had his own moral failings and blood on his hands, he was ultimately fighting for his people’s culture and language. “He shall hang though every dog in Quebec bark in his favour,” Macdonald has been quoted as notoriously saying, setting in motion a deeply divided nation and francophone animosity and distrust of the Canadian government that continues to this day.

Finally, and just as importantly, Macdonald was responsible for introducing — for the first time ever — legislation that excluded immigration based on ethnicity. Once Chinese labour was no longer needed to build the railroads, the Chinese Head Tax forced every Chinese immigrant to pay a fee to enter the country ($50 at first, later increased to $500, a huge amount of money at the time) to restrict and hopefully eliminate Chinese immigration.

Sure, yes…. Macdonald was one of the founding members of the Canadian confederation and he should be remembered as such, but he and his genocidal legacy were celebrated uncritically for decades. There’s no valid reason why in 2020 we should continue to do so.

Take the hint already!

The John A. Macdonald statue has been vandalized countless times before (and beheaded in 1992) so maybe we should have all collectively gotten the hint and taken it down earlier. An online petition had requested as much, garnering over 45,000 signatures in the process, yet the City remained steadfast in its refusal to move. The group responsible for toppling it has warned that, if it’s reinstated, it will come down again, so repairing it and placing it back up feels pointless to me, unless we’re planning on taxpayer money being used to provide Sir John with an around-the-clock security detail. I, for one, would prefer to see my money spent elsewhere.

People who claim that we’re erasing history by removing these statues amuse me. The removal of Confederate statues in the American South or Nazi symbolism in Germany haven’t erased anything. This IS history. History is constantly being made every day and we’re a part of it. The decision to erect, display and lionize Macdonald in 1895 (and for the 125 years or so afterwards) was a part of history, and so was the decision to remove his statue. Both events are symbolic of different times (and different values) in this country’s evolution. We are starting to re-evaluate what we have been told we must selectively celebrate and uncritically treat as our heritage. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a society deciding that some of it simply doesn’t hold up to public scrutiny any longer.

People claiming that the statue should have been removed after public consensus and peaceful deliberation fail to understand that sometimes expressions of discontent are messy, and when people are not heard, they make themselves heard. A friend posted a New Yorker cartoon by Jason Adam Katzenstein depicting a king with an angry mob at the foot of his castle, pitchforks and torches in hand, looking down at them and saying, “Can’t you do this in a more polite way that I can completely ignore?” That’s why acts like this ultimately work. They can’t be ignored.

Forcing uncomfortable conversations

I’m not here to weigh the benefits of vandalism in persuading the average person to understand deep injustices. I’m not personally convinced this type of civil disobedience does much to sway public opinion in favour of protesters and their movements. I think these are acts that, for the majority, are only understood and supported in hindsight and after some time has gone by.

But acts like these inevitably force uncomfortable conversations and educate people on the why’s of such actions. I think Canada is — by many standards — a great place to live, but it’s also in deep denial about its whitewashed history, its white supremacy issues and ongoing police violence because we can always conveniently point to our neighbour to the south as immediate absolution. 

What has fascinated me the most in this public debate is how eagerly politicians and the public have gotten worked up about the “violence” of a hunk of metal crashing to the ground, and not the daily and very real violence of water advisories in First Nations reserves, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, the routine violence BIPOC people are faced with in a system that minimizes and denies racism, institutionalized discrimination and police brutality. Tearing down an inanimate statue pales as violence in comparison to what is happening daily to flesh-and-blood human beings in this country who don’t get the privilege of front-page headlines and Premier Kenney inviting them over for additional safekeeping.

Let’s focus on the real violence

Sometimes when petitions and public outcry aren’t enough, people take on the task of forcing the issue. Statues aren’t history. Stop fetishizing chunks of metal. Nothing has been erased. Macdonald’s legacy (good and bad) will be taught in history classes for years to come.

To continue to keep this man publicly elevated like that in one of the most visible and prominent spots in downtown Montreal (while present-day descendants of the people he victimized walk by) is a choice to ignore and by default endorse what he stands for. Knowing what we know now and living in a society that has hopefully evolved to see all beings deserving of human rights and dignity and safety, why would we want to celebrate this part of our heritage?

Nations and people evolve and so should the public space honouring what we collectively consider to be worthy of celebration. The outrage is misplaced. We need to redirect it to things that matter. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.