On Saturday Aug. 29, the statue of John A. Macdonald in Montreal’s Place du Canada was pulled down after a peaceful protest led by The Coalition for BIPOC Liberation to defund the Montreal police.
In the widely circulated clip on Twitter, a number of anonymous protesters climbed onto the statue in Montreal’s Place du Canada after a peaceful protest had wrapped up.
With a single rope wrapped around Macdonald’s shoulders, the statue toppled to the ground, and the head of Macdonald broke off dramatically and rolled its way onto the lawn just before 3 p.m.
In Short: While the toppling of the statue of Canada’s first prime minister in Montreal caused a flurry of controversy and shockwaves online, the reality is that for months, and even years, activists have been saying time’s-up for Macdonald’s statues.
- Across Canada, there have been online petitions, protests and public defacement. Politicians have been forced to respond to protests and demands for removal across the country.
What they’re saying:
Justin Trudeau told reporters in a statement on Saturday that he was “deeply disappointed” by the vandalism that took place over the weekend.
“Those kinds of acts of vandalism are not advancing the path towards greater justice and equality in this country,” said Trudeau.
“Now we’ve seen following that people on either side of the spectrum trying to use these elements as a way of furthering debate, I’m more interested in using the real frustrations that people have as motivations to continue to make the big changes necessary.”
Valerie Plante, the Mayor of Montreal, echoed Trudeau’s statements, saying acts of vandalism will not be tolerated.
“I understand and share the motivation of citizens who want to live in a more just and inclusive society. The discussion and the actions that are required must be done in a peaceful manner, without ever resorting to vandalism,” wrote Plante on Twitter.
Plante says the SPVM (Service de police de la Ville de Montréal) is conducting an investigation into the toppling of the statue and that conservation effort will be coordinated by the public art office. In consultation with the city’s heritage experts, Plante will analyze the next steps to be taken. She did not commit to reinstalling the statue.
A petition on Change.org created by Quentin Duret on Sept. 1 is calling for the toppled Macdonald statue to be replaced with a monument honouring Louis Riel, the Metis leader who held resistance movements against Macdonald’s government in the Prairies. He was tried and hung for treason upon the orders of Macdonald in 1885.
It was on the same platform that the original petition demanding the removal of Macdonald’s Montreal statue gained attention.
“There is absolutely no reason or room for a racist, colonial, white nationalist to be celebrated on unceded Indigenous land,” reads the petition started on June 6, 2020.
“The very fact that this monument exists is an example of the whitewashing of cultural history, and true “reconciliation” does not include the glorification of those that actively pursued Indigenous genocide.”
Created by Isobel Walker, with over 45,000 signatures to date, the petition gained popularity around the country, and saw more activists flock online in the month of June to create appeals for the removal of statues across the country.
- On June 11, Roshni Desai created a petition for Macdonald’s statue in Kingston, Ontario to be removed and received close to 4,000 signatures.
- On June 17th, Andy Glydon created a petition to remove Charlottetown’s Macdonald statue and received over 2,000 signatures.
- On June 22, Lori Campbell, a sixties scoop survivor, created a petition calling for an immediate halt to the Prime Ministers’ Path statue project, a path that holds twenty-two life sized, bronze sculptures of Prime Ministers.
For every petition calling for removal, there were others demanding the restoration or protection of defaced statues. On Sept. 3, Andrew Scheer, MP for Regina—Qu’Appelle in Saskatchewan shared the link to supportjohna.com, a petition to keep Macdonald’s statue in Regina.
- The link was shared on Facebook as part of Scheer’s virtual rally with MP Warren Steinley and MP Michael Kram.
- On the petition’s website, in addition to promoting ‘law and order’ and honouring Macdonald’s ‘contributions’, it displayed photos of defaced and graffitied Macdonald statues, including the broken head of Macdonald from the Montreal protest on Aug. 29.
“A radical leftist minority wants to rewrite Canadian history, tear down monuments to our founders, and destroy any sense of national unity. Stand up for Canada,” reads the petition.
In a video which was recorded and posted on Scheer’s Facebook page, Scheer took to a podium next to Macdonald’s statue in Regina’s Victoria Park on Sept. 3 to defend the first Prime Minister’s statue.
“If we are going to reserve monuments and public statements to those who had been perfect, while I’m not sure who we would ever end up honouring,” said Scheer.
- While Scheer said that he understands why many people would take issue with Macdonald’s policies, he pointed to the fact that Canadians should apply the same logic to other controversial Canadian figures.
- He brought up former Prime Ministers Wilfrid Laurier and William Lyon Mackenzie King, questioning if monuments and dollar bills should be stripped of their name and image.
“It is fashionable today to look down at the past, but that is a luxury we enjoy from highs built by those, who like Sir John A., came before us,” said Scheer at the rally.
Is there a place where both sides can meet in the middle? Hard to say.
In Ottawa, Mayor Jim Watson does not support removing the Ottawa statue of Macdonald located on Parliament Hill. However, like other politicians, Watson is open to placing a plaque describing both the good and bad about controversial Canadian figures.
On her Twitter page, Mayor Plante suggested that she too is open to putting historical monuments at the center of debate into context as well as adding monuments that are more representative.
While adding more information about controversial figures might be helpful, it does not address activists’ argument; that their mere existence perpetuates racism and division towards the BIPOC community.
“In the words of Art Historian and McGill professor Charmaine Nelson: ‘These monuments are not meaningless, insignificant, inanimate objects. Rather, they are being strategically used by white supremacists as talismen in their tactics of racial hatred’,” wrote Walker, the creator of Montreal’s petition to remove Macdonald’s statue.
“Montreal public spaces should celebrate collective efforts for justice and liberation, not genocide and white supremacy.”
The Bottom Line: An international racial justice movement has achieved the Canadian spotlight, asking how controversial figures deserve to be represented in our public spaces.
- Some commentators have said that this is the voice of the public, manifested by groups that have been historically silenced, while others argue the tearing down of statues is criminal mischief.
- In recent years statues have become an increasingly central nexus for social conflict – and John A. is just the latest.
Whether this will continue to be a form of protest – and whether the protests will be met with a response remains to be seen.
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