Some are calling for problematic statues of historical figures in Canada to be removed in the wake of worldwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality that were sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after an officer knelt on his neck for over eight minutes during arrest.
Several statues around the world have been torn down by force. The statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston met its watery end on Sunday in western England after anti-racism protesters tied ropes around the statue’s head, dragged it through Bristol and dumped it into a harbour.
On Saturday, protesters toppled a statue of Confederate Gen. Williams Carter Wickham in Richmond, Va. On Thursday, Gov. Ralph Northam is expected to announce the removal of the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from the city’s Monument Avenue.
On Tuesday, London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced all of the city’s landmarks — including its statues —will be reviewed to make sure they reflect its diverse population. Some think Canada should follow suit.
“Monuments are important. Monuments represent how we view our history and who we value,” said Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, director of the University of British Columbia’s Indian Residential School Centre For History and Dialogue.
“If we pick to value one narrative that has been at the expense of Indigenous people and we don’t balance it, we don’t place it in any context, we don’t engage people — well, you can expect significant unrest.”
Turpel-Lafond, who is Cree, said that for direct or intergenerational survivors of the residential school system, which the Canadian government said saw “some 150,000 Indigenous children removed and separated from their families and communities,” being confronted by statues depicting well-known Fathers of Confederation while walking down the street signifies a lack of respect she described as “very upsetting.”
“Seeing those champions who didn’t just design the residential school system, but were determined to take the Indian out of the child and the horrors that resulted — that’s a visceral reaction,” she said.
As the country moves towards an era of truth and reconciliation, Turpel-Lafond said monuments need to be placed in “a truthful context” that includes both historical successes and “things that are considered to be genocidal failures.”
She praised younger activists and Indigenous students, who she said were leading the charge in working towards having certain statues taken down on campuses.
Ryerson University in Toronto, for example, which says it champions diversity, was named in 1948 after Egerton Ryerson, a controversial public education pioneer who is believed to have helped shape residential school policy.
In 2017, its student-body union made a failed push to have his statue removed. It now stands at the centre of the school’s campus, alongside a small plaque that addresses Egerton’s role in “cultural genocide.”
Ryerson alumni Maaz Khan, 25, told Global News that seeing the change brought about by recent protests inspired him to start a petition on Saturday to have it removed.
“(Ryerson promotes) equality and inclusivity and then (they) have a statue that represents the opposite. We’re celebrating a person that basically stood against all of what Canada stands for now,” he said.
Khan said the protests represented a “global change” and fundamental steps forward in a more progressive direction.
“We’re now trying to celebrate people who actually make positive change rather than negative change,” he said.
In a statement to Global News, Ryerson University said it has made no decision to remove the statue, “however, the university is always open to hearing from our community members — be they staff, students, faculty or alumni — when they have concerns and/or suggestions.”
Some statues have already been taken down.
Last year, a statue in Orillia, Ont., of Samuel de Champlain towering over scenes of two Indigenous people looking up at a Jesuit priest and fur trader was removed for refurbishment. While the statue of Champlain was re-installed immediately, the others were to be reconstructed after further consultations with First Nations.
Champlain is known for his contributions in establishing Canada’s first colonies, according to a federal government press release.
In 2018, a statue of Halifax founder Edward Cornwallis — who was known for offering a bounty to anyone who scalped a Mi’kmaq person in 1749 while he served as governor — was removed from a park named after him.
Two years ago, Victoria’s mayor and council voted to remove a statue in celebration of Canada’s first prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald, who played a key role in creating the residential school system. To date, several remain, including one in Montreal.
A petition began circulating on Sunday to have one of those Macdonald statues removed — and it’s gaining traction. By Wednesday, it had over 9,700 signatures. Its organizer, Isobel Walker, 22, said it’s been a long time coming.
“We are here today because (Macdonald) did the work of forming this country. But in the same way, his racist and colonial legacy is also enduring and the monument is something that we no longer want in public spaces because we don’t want to forget or diminish the harm that he has caused,” she said.
Walker added that she hoped Macdonald’s statue, as well as others like his, could be placed in museums that have the space to provide historical context about these figures’ involvement with white supremacy.
“It’s not an effort to change the past or erase history, but these monuments should no longer be celebrated in public spaces,” she said. “It’s time to make a change.”
Montreal city council did not to respond to questions about the petition or the removal of the statue in time for publication.