John A. Macdonald statue Montreal

John A. Macdonald in Montreal: A statue of limitations

A committee convened to decide the fate of the decapitated statue of Canada’s first prime minister actually recommended against restoring it. Are the times truly changing?

The ad hoc committee convened by Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante to decide whether or not to restore the decapitated statue of John A. Macdonald to his perch overlooking Place du Canada finally (finally!) delivered its verdict last week. If I know my audience as well as I suspect I do, you along with me, have been on the absolute edge of our seats waiting for this slapdash and motley crew of experts and bureaucrats with little else to do to make a determination on the fate of this bronze, aged, John A.

I am somewhat surprised that the committee actually recommended not restoring the statue — perhaps the times truly are changing. The committee specifically mentioned Macdonald’s overtly assimilationist and genocidal policies, and the legacies of these policies, as reasons why the statue ought not to be restored. The committee also determined that the necessity of publicly questioning and discussing Macdonald’s legacy is a moral responsibility for the city, and one that exceeds its responsibility to maintain the integrity of the monument. 

That’s a rather significant judgment, and a refreshing one at that.

Whether Mairesse Plante heeds their recommendation is another matter. At the time the statue was torn down, she stated her belief that it is better to put controversial statues in context rather than removing them, but didn’t offer any clear ideas about how that might be accomplished. It is difficult to critically assess the legacy of an individual cast in bronze and standing a dozen or so feet above your head. A plaque might not cut it.

That said, and given that the committee itself recommends an inclusive approach to determining what happens moving forward, it is nonetheless limited by its desire to keep what remains of the monument — namely the plinth and baldachin. 

There are competing schools of thought on what to do with old monuments, one of which is that they are historical artifacts in their own right and should be treated as such. To do this properly, it would mean taking apart the rest of the monument and rebuilding the entire thing — Macdonald included — in a museum. For those advocating putting controversial monuments in context, this is the route to go, as a museum would have the staff and resources necessary to explain what it meant when it was erected as much as when it was torn down.

Alternatively, another perspective is that the destruction of the monument constitutes a historic act unto itself, and that it is a logical evolution of a monument to a person with as disreputable a reputation as Macdonald. In this case, the destruction of the monument in 2020 — in the context of global protests against police brutality after the murder of George Floyd — is the new context to interpret the Macdonald monument. This could mean leaving the plinth and baldachin standing, and perhaps even putting the decapitated monument back where it fell. This would in effect be a new monument to the day Montrealers joined with anti-racist activists the world over and expressed their displeasure with the whitewashing of our nation’s history of racism and genocide.

A third option would be to create a new piece of public art that reinterprets the old monument. This was done in San Francisco, where a new public artwork (Monumental Reckoning by sculptor Dana King) now surrounds the former monument to Francis Scott Key in the city’s Golden Gate Park. Scott Key, well-known as the writer of the Star Spangled Banner (which became the United States’ national anthem in 1931), was a slave owner. His statue was pulled down about two months before Macdonald’s head hit the pavement in Montreal. King’s monument is of 350 black figures, representing the first enslaved Africans brought to what would become the United States, surrounding the plinth in a circle, their faces looking up at the empty space once occupied by the monument to Scott Key.

These are by no means the only options, and the committee has also identified other possible options, including (but by no means limited to), installing an interpretive plaque, developing virtual and digital commemorations to complement new physical components and the possibility of also including a reconciliation ceremony. These are all good ideas made better by the fact that the committee wants to include as much public input as possible.

One option the committee did not consider, however, is whether Place du Canada is where we collectively want to explore reconciliation, and whether the Macdonald monument (or whatever’s left of it) is the right avenue to reconciliation. It is still interpreting an aspect of our shared history through the prism of a man responsible for terrible atrocities. This is not to say that a reinterpretation of the monument — such as was done in San Francisco — wouldn’t or shouldn’t be welcome within the context of the space, but if we’re going to consider all options, we might want to go as far as asking whether the slate should be wiped clean of Macdonald entirely, the monument, plinth and baldachin removed from the site and put in a museum.

If the city is genuinely interested in consulting with Indigenous people about what to do here, and has a genuine interest in what they think, they may be surprised to discover Indigenous people might not be particularly interested in performative acts of reconciliation centred on monuments to people complicit in the genocide of their ancestors, even if that monument has been reinterpreted. Remember, we’re only even thinking of a reconciliation-related commemoration in this space because of the presence of the Macdonald monument, something a growing number of us are evidently feeling ashamed of. We need to consider whether the solutions proposed so far are intended to make non-Indigenous people feel better, or address some of the very real problems left over by the legacy of colonization and forced assimilation. 

If it’s the latter, Mairesse Plante might consider working a little harder to find sustainable housing solutions for the city’s unhoused Indigenous population. ■

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes here.