On August 29, protesters toppled John A. Macdonald’s statue in Montréal’s Place du Canada, leaving our first prime minister’s headless, graffiti-stained effigy to lie in the square, only to be removed the next morning.
Montréal’s mayor, Valérie Plante, “strongly condemned” the act, claiming that since “historical monuments… are at the heart of current emotional debates… it’s better to put them in context rather than remove them.” Justin Trudeau, as well as Québec Premier François Legault, also decried the incident, the latter insisting that “we have to respect the history.”
The toppling of statues has garnered a lot of attention in the past year, viewed both as a legitimate protest tactic and as an unlawful act of national disrespect. In July, protestors in Bristol, England toppled the statue of Edward Colston, an infamous slave trader who was prominently involved in the United Kingdom’s sole official slaving firm, the Royal African Company. In the United States, several statues of Confederate soldiers and Christopher Columbus have been either vandalized or toppled.
Aside from questions of legality, popular and intellectual debate surrounding the tearing down of statues has centred on historical questions; or, at least, the way in which we ought to engage with problematic historical artefacts. One prominent argument—the same one being espoused by Montréal’s mayor and Québec’s premier—makes the case that even though some historical monuments may represent morally depraved human beings, it is important to preserve them in order to shed light on the failures of our past.
There is a significant degree of legitimacy to this argument. Canada, after all, is a nation built on the colonized lands of Indigenous societies, and the history of its formation is one of bloodshed, conquest, and genocide. Any move toward erasing this facet of our past (such as changes to Québec’s high school textbooks) should be viewed with extreme suspicion. Historical whitewashing may just as easily—and more insidiously—be deployed through silence than disinformation.
However, it is crucial to recall that these statues are not monuments of collective historical remembrance; rather, they are static, physical pieces of propaganda. The key difference between artefacts of propaganda and those of shared historical remembrance lies in the context and execution of their production. Auschwitz, for instance, has been preserved as a memorial to the millions of victims of the Nazi regime. It is free to visit as a museum and administered precisely as a form of historical reckoning.
Yet, the statue of a historical figure, placed in a public space without proper contextualization, is not an artefact designed to encourage a reckoning with the past—in this case, the troubling and violent history of Canada’s first prime minister. Its very presence forces a specific ideological perspective onto our shared environment, one that we, as a nation, have not collectively agreed upon.
Macdonald’s statue was erected in Montréal in 1895, underlining “the major events of Macdonald’s government, which contributed to the expansion of Canada.” It seems only reasonable to affirm that the statues we choose to erect should also represent some sort of consensus surrounding our national values.
James Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains, a remarkable book which explores the historical roots of health inequities between Indigenous and settler Canadians, “draws a direct line connecting 19th century Canadian Indian policy, Sir John A. Macdonald’s railroad, western settlement, Canada’s economic foundation and territorial theft of Indigenous communities, ethnic cleansing and genocide.” The evidence of Macdonald’s crimes against humanity are quite disturbing, to say the least.
Daschuk retells how clearing the land for the construction of the Pacific Railway led to the needless deaths of thousands of Indigenous people, from whom food was withheld until they moved to reserves. What’s more, Macdonald explicitly denied Chinese Canadians the right to vote, a group which had laboured in terrible conditions to build the railroads for paltry wages. Historians estimate that at least 600 of them died in the process.
Macdonald was an Anglophile in that he did not personally believe in the bicultural and bilingual essence of Canadian colonial identity. The fusion of his racism towards Indigenous peoples and his Francophobia culminated in the hanging of Louis Riel, a “protector of minority rights,” causing a national fracture between English and French Canada, which still persists today. If any of this sounds like the kind of Canadian whose values we wish to represent—unchallenged—as a centerpiece in our public places, then a deep national reckoning is indeed required.
Any positive element of Macdonald’s legacy must be discussed in the same breath as his crimes and atrocities. The same principle may be applied to any other political or historical figure, whether it be Saddam Hussein or George W. Bush. Historical figures—like history itself—are mired in contradictions.
The complexity of history cannot be folded up and prepackaged into the shape of a man made out of metal, standing proudly among living people. Yet, politicians are calling for Macdonald’s statue to be re-erected in the name of national conversation. Instead, we should liberate our public spaces from all symbols of ideology and allow them to flourish as communal, living ecologies. Fountains, trees, benches, playgrounds, and sports facilities fuse into microcosms of the kind of free, evolving, plural, and neutral democracies which we should aspire to build.
Emmanuel Adams is a writer and journalist, as well as a community-involved activist and medical student at McGill University. Emmanuel holds a BA in English Literature and Philosophy from McGill University.