‘Statues are not history’: considering the removal of Sir John A. Macdonald
It’s a recurring debate: what to do with statues of famous Canadians who time has publicly revealed to be less than upstanding individuals.
Colonel Edward Cornwallis is heralded as the founder of Halifax but he also led campaigns against locals, raiding land and killing Mi’kmaq men, women and children.
Sir John A Macdonald was Canada’s first prime minister but also an architect of the Indian Residential School System, which ripped more than 150,000 children from their families where many suffered emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse.
So, do we tear them down to foster reconciliation or do we leave their statues up because to hide them away would be an attempt — as some have argued — to change Canadian history?
The issue hit the fore again this week, as the City of Victoria announced plans to remove a statue of Macdonald outside of city hall, to be replaced with a plaque with a message for reconciliation. In a Tweet, Federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer warned, “We should not allow political correctness to erase our history.”
WATCH: Victoria mayor on removal of John A. MacDonald Statue
That’s pretty misleading, said Jonathan Fowler, an anthropology professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.
“You can’t change history, you can’t deny history,” Fowler said.
“We hear this like a mantra but it’s totally a red herring, it’s totally off track. Statues are not history.”
Statues are a way we publicly commemorate people and moments from the past, he said. When people have an incomplete view of the past we can run into trouble.
WATCH: Kingstonians react to removal of Sir John A. Macdonald statue in B.C.
“Different members of our broad community have different histories,” Fowler said, “that would really exacerbate this problem because it would blindside people — ‘What do you mean we have to take the statue down?’”
Taking a statue down could tell a more honest history, Jennifer Adese said.
“We don’t do a very good job of acknowledging the complexity of human history — at least not in Canada, “ said Adese, an associate professor in the University of Toronto’s sociology department.
“We want a positive narrative and we have a very hard time accepting that the image that we have of ourselves as Canada cannot always be positive.”
The problem boils down to lack of education, she said.
The predominant Macdonald narrative is about a man who built a country.
“Okay, John A. built the nation,” Adese said, “but he didn’t build the nation on nothing. He built the nation by displacing people.”
She noted it’s an issue not altogether divorced from Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s cancellation of summer writing sessions for the next part of the province’s school curriculum, focusing on the history and culture of Indigenous people.
WATCH: Local Indigenous reaction of cancellation of work on new school curriculum
“We have generations of people who weren’t raised knowing more than a single narrative about their history,” Adese said. “If we teach that from a very early age we don’t run into these kinds of tensions as much as adults.”
It isn’t as if concerns about John A. Macdonald’s legacy are new.
A pub in Kingston, the prime minister’s hometown, already shed his famous name, while in 2017 the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario asked to have his named stripped from elementary schools.
But whether the solution is straight removal or plaques adding additional context is an issue many are actively wrestling with.
“It’s really not going to accomplish much because a Sir John A statue is not Sir John. A,” said Kenneth Harlin at a gathering in Kingston earlier this week to celebrate Indigenous cultures. “It’s just a statue of him.”
What would help, Fowler said, is if we changed how we spoke about the statues.
“These things can spiral out of control,” he said. “The sad thing is that these debates are not easily resolved in the political context because listening is not something that happens.”
Still, Fowler is hopeful.
“I do think that dialogue has the capacity to resolve these grievances,” he said, “not just speaking, but listening.”
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