Canada’s founder oppressed Indigenous peoples. Should his statues stand?

Why We Wrote This

As historical figures come under new scrutiny, countries are facing a tough question: How do you memorialize the past while still recognizing the wrongs that foundational leaders committed?

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
Jim Rodger is a brainchild of the "Prime Ministers Path," a project that was intended to take Canadians on a tour of their 22 former prime ministers, including William Lyon MacKenzie King, shown here. But amid controversy over the legacy of the first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, the idea is on hold.

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Sir John A. Macdonald is often called the father of Canada since he oversaw confederation more than 150 years ago. But he has recently been scrutinized for another legacy: as a key architect of the residential school system for Indigenous children that a landmark report in Canada concluded was “cultural genocide.”

And that is leading to debate over the statues dedicated to him, and how to memorialize a past that is now widely seen as a stain on Canadian history.

At the heart of the dispute here is whether a monument can ever be contextualized enough to tell two sides of a story, especially when a figure embodies values that are anathema today. It’s a debate that David MacDonald, a comparative Indigenous politics professor at the University of Guelph, says he believes will grow in North America and Europe as frustrations mount over stubborn systematic racism and as sensibilities change.

“John A. is kind of the beginning of the process, rather than the end of the process,” he says.

The “Prime Ministers Path” circles a grassy field outside this town hall. Begun in 2016, the path was meant to lead Canadians on a tour of their history told through bronze statues of their 22 former leaders.

The first statue to go up along the trail was that of Sir John A. Macdonald, often called the father of Canada since he oversaw confederation over 150 years ago. Four others followed in 2017 and 2018. This summer four more were supposed to go up, making nine.

Instead, amid vandalization, sit-ins, and heated virtual town council meetings, the council decided to take Macdonald’s down.

Today it sits in an undisclosed location and the entire project is on hold as Wilmot Township, in rural Ontario, grapples with Macdonald’s other legacy – as a key architect of the residential school system for Indigenous children that a landmark report in Canada concluded was “cultural genocide.”

In the United States and Europe, debates have raged as monuments of Confederate generals or slave traders have come down at a rapid clip after anti-racism protests erupted around the globe this summer. Similarly in Canada, views are divided about how to memorialize a past that is now widely seen as a stain on Canadian history. In Baden, dueling petitions surfaced over the summer – to both preserve and pull down Macdonald.

At the heart of the dispute here is whether a monument can ever be contextualized enough to tell two sides of a story, especially when a figure embodies values that are anathema today. It’s a debate that David MacDonald, a comparative Indigenous politics professor at the University of Guelph, says he believes will grow in North America and Europe as frustrations mount over stubborn systematic racism and as sensibilities change.

“John A. is kind of the beginning of the process, rather than the end of the process,” he says.

“They’re there for you to interact with”

The “Prime Ministers Path” was never meant as an homage, argues Jim Rodger, a mastermind of the project. When he was a high school principal, he had previously erected a statue of William Lyon Mackenzie King, a former prime minister and school alumnus. So when a local business leader contacted him, they set out to provide a walk through history. They purposely didn’t commission works that would sit on plinths or loom larger-than-life. Instead the statues are life-size and at ground level.

The project had already been rejected twice – from a nearby city and university – before Wilmot expressed interest, but that didn’t deter Mr. Rodger’s conviction that this was an educational tool intended to spur debate and face hard questions.

“It’s not the Lincoln Memorial. It’s not the Washington Monument. It’s just Lester Pearson. It’s just Robert Borden. They’re our size. And they’re there for you to interact with, confront, or admire, whatever it is you choose to do,” he says.

One of the statues still standing today is of Kim Campbell, because although she served briefly, she is Canada’s only female prime minister. Lori Campbell, who teaches Indigenous studies at the University of Waterloo, says that in the midst of the debate, a community member spoke up about how their daughter was inspired by that statue. But what about an Indigenous child who sees Macdonald as a symbol of oppression toward his or her people?

“I think it’s important that we talk about who we are harming, not just who we are benefiting,” says Professor Campbell, who is Cree-Métis. She started one of the petitions this summer to stop the path.

Robert Roth launched the other, calling to save the statues. To take them down is to suppress free speech, says the former newspaperman, and it’s not anyone’s right today to decide who should remain standing or not. William Lyon Mackenzie King, who stands in the path, turned back a boat of 900 Jewish refugees in 1939 (the Canadian government only apologized for it in 2018). The last residential school didn’t close down until 1996, so all the leaders of the 20th century are in some ways complicit.

“Not one of those statues would remain if everybody had to be perfect,” he says.

Applying the same standards to the U.S., one would have to chisel Thomas Jefferson and George Washington out of Mount Rushmore because they were slaveowners, he argues. “They existed in the time of slavery. But they weren’t put there to manifest white power,” he says. “It’s a bigger issue than just the statues. It’s about how we make decisions and how we dialog in society.”

Professor Campbell believes Macdonald played a role in creating the Canada we know today and that his policies should be studied. “I think it’s important for all of us, Indigenous, non-Indigenous, from the earliest settlers to the newest newcomers, to have a very fulsome education about the history of the formation of Canada.”

But she says public space is not the place. She supports the monuments being moved to a museum, where Canadians can intentionally go to educate themselves about the past.

Rethinking Macdonald’s legacy

Wilmot Township is undergoing a consultation with Indigenous communities and will issue a report in March – a process that many can agree is the right way forward and that doesn’t mean one outcome. Some communities have chosen to keep up statues or residential school structures in other places. “It’s up to the descendants of those that have been structurally damaged by people like Macdonald, I think, to make some of those decisions,” says Dr. MacDonald.

Baden is certainly not the only town to grapple with this. A statue of John A. Macdonald was toppled by activists at an anti-racism protest in August in Montreal. An online poll performed by marketing analysts Leger for the Association for Canadian Studies showed that half of respondents say they oppose removing statues or monuments, even if leaders were behind racist policies; the other half supported it or weren’t sure what should be done.

Macdonald’s role in Canada’s assimilationist policies hasn’t been broadly taught or understood until recently. In the Leger poll, while 44% said they considered him foremost the architect of Canadian Confederation, 15% cited his anti-Indigenous policies. It wasn’t until the Truth and Reconciliation Commission published its findings in 2015 on residential schooling that mainstream society began to learn more about the traumas the system wrought. The United Nations has for several years condemned Canada, saying it “faces a continuing crisis when it comes to the situation of indigenous peoples of the country.”

At the same time, Indigenous communities have been frustrated by the slow pace of the government’s response to the commission’s 94 Calls to Action toward justice and equality. Their frustration has grown with a lack of action on a national inquiry concluded last year into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, and with claims of structural racism on the part of authorities. This month the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Nova Scotia is facing criticism it has not intervened fairly in a dispute between commercial and Mi’kmaw fisherman that led to vandalism of the Mi’kmaw facility.

Macdonald is often the object of those frustrations.

“A very difficult time”

Today, where the statue of Macdonald once stood in Baden, there is now just a cement slab. A few red specks recall the recent protests.

“If you walked by here and you don’t know what was there, you’re certainly never going to think about Sir John A. Macdonald or even residential schools,” says Mr. Rodger, pointing to the site. He’d prefer to keep him standing, even if vandalized. “I would choose to have him there. And you live with what happens.”

Mary Margaret Laing is using the cement slab as a bench on a recent day, treating her grandson to a snack from Tim Hortons. She says she doesn’t need the statue to teach her about Macdonald’s full legacy; for that, she took a university course on Reconciliation that she calls “life-changing,” including redefining herself as a “settler.” Opposing the statue, for her, is an act of solidarity and she hopes the debate spurs soul-searching within others.

“We’re going through a very difficult time in this country with our Indigenous community. And I think most people are working hard to figure out how they can participate in Reconciliation,” she says. “I think this is one way they can participate.”

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