Content warning: sexual abuse, anti-Indigenous racism, colonialism
In an online statement released August 8, 2018, Victoria, B.C. mayor Lisa Helps pledged to remove the statue of Canada’s first Prime Minister John A. MacDonald which stood outside City Hall. The move is the first in Victoria’s reconciliation efforts with the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations, an initiative started by Indigenous activists and the city in 2017.
As Canada’s Prime Minister, MacDonald advocated for “an Aryan Canada.” He was one of the key architects of residential schools, serving as the Superintendent General of Immigration and Indian Affairs. MacDonald oversaw and fought for the expansion of the first residential schools, despite reports of the death and the physical and sexual abuse of students. In 1885, during a speech in the House of Commons, MacDonald stated, “we have been pampering and coaxing the Indians; […] we must take a new course, we must vindicate the position of the white man, we must teach the Indians what law is.”
Protests over MacDonald’s presence in public spaces have erupted both domestically and internationally. Statues of MacDonald have been and continue to be vandalized in Kingston (2013), Regina (twice so far in 2018), and here in Montreal (thrice between 2017-2018). In 2016, Wilfrid Laurier University’s Board of Governors also decided to remove a statue of MacDonald from their campus. The government of Scotland, MacDonald’s home country, recently announced that it will remove references to MacDonald from scotland.org, their tourism website, due to his treatment of Indigenous peoples.
The discussion around removing colonialist statues has been met with resistance. On August 17, the Conservative Party of Canada posted a video in response to Victoria’s decision to take down their statue of MacDonald. In the video, the party asks those in favour of removing his statue to consider MacDonald’s legacy as building “the most spectacular country in the world,” rather than as a founder of the residential school system. The Conservative Party warns us in the video against “eras[ing] history,” but minimizes MacDonald’s responsibility in the cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples. The Conservatives want us to buy into Canadian exceptionalism*, which is only possible if one erases its colonial past and present. Removing his statue is not erasure, it is a much needed attempt at reconciliation.
Maclean’s magazine has created a map showing the public spaces dedicated to MacDonald in cities around the country. There are two in Montreal: a monument downtown and a high school in Parc-Extension. Victoria B.C.’s response to the current discussions represents one way of starting to address the impacts of colonialism in Canada. The City of Montreal should respond to local Indigenous activists attempting to remove celebrations of colonialism and should fully engage in reconciliation in the public space.