This story has been updated to include comment from Winnipeg police and a witness.
Protesters toppled statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II in Winnipeg Thursday as outrage grows over Indigenous children who were buried in unmarked graves at residential schools.
Videos posted to social media taken from outside the Manitoba Legislature show a group of people using ropes to pull a large statue of Queen Victoria to the ground while chanting, “Take her down,” and, “No pride in genocide.” The statue was covered in red paint and a sign that said, “We were children once. Bring them home,” was placed near it.
According to CBC News, a smaller statue of Queen Elizabeth II was also knocked down.
The incidents took place amid a wider push to cancel Canada Day celebrations Thursday as the country reckons with the legacy of its colonial roots. In Winnipeg, there were two rallies held to honour the lives of the Indigenous children who died, including the Every Child Matters walk, which ended at the legislature grounds.
Shirley Hayloz Semple, who grew up on the Berens River First Nation, was at the demonstration.
“What happened on Canada Day here was incredible to witness,” she said. “For the first time ever we felt powerful on our own lands that we agreed to share with those who wanted to wipe us off the face of the earth.”
She said Canada was “built on genocide.”
“So for us to celebrate the Crown and Canada Day? That is a slap in our face,” she said.
Speaking to reporters Friday afternoon, Winnipeg Police Chief Danny Smyth said a man was arrested in relation to damage to a car and was not tied to the statues. He did not comment on if police tasered the man, which was reported by CBC News.
Smyth said the majority of the people at the demonstrations were peaceful, but “some of our members were assaulted and spit on.” He said some police cars were also damaged with rocks and paint.
He said he doesn’t know if anyone will be charged for knocking over the statues but that police will be investigating using security footage on site.
Since late May, more than 1,100 unmarked graves, mostly belonging to Indigenous children, have been re-discovered on former residential school sites by First Nations. A day before Canada Day, the community of ʔaq̓ am announced it had found 182 unmarked graves near the former Catholic-run St. Eugene’s Mission School, VICE World News previously reported. The findings came after remedial work that began at a cemetery last year; it is not yet clear if the graves belonged to children. Last week, Cowessess First Nation confirmed an estimated 751 unmarked graves at a former residential school in Saskatchewan, following up on the May announcement from Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation of 215 graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Canada’s residential schools, most of which were run by the Catholic church, ripped an estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children from their families and attempted to forcibly assimilate them. Children faced physical and sexual abuse and neglect, and were punished for expressing Indigenous languages and identities. The schools started in the 1880s with the last ones closing in the 1990s.
Pope Francis and the Catholic church have not yet apologized for the church’s role in the residential school system, despite growing calls for an apology and reparations.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has identified the names and information about 4,100 kids who died while attending residential schools. TRC chair Justice Murray Sinclair has said the true number of kids who died as a result of attending residential schools could be in the 15,000 to 25,000 range.
Cities across the country Thursday held rallies to honour the lives of the children who died, with many donning orange shirts in solidarity with Indigenous peoples.
Speaking to the BBC, a spokesperson for the British government said it condemns “any defacing of statues of the Queen.” The spokesperson said the government’s thoughts “are with Canada's indigenous community following these tragic discoveries and we follow these issues closely and continue to engage with the government of Canada with indigenous matters."
In recent weeks, activists have painted various statues of Canada’s First Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, red. Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island council decided to remove a statue of him from its downtown. Protesters also beheaded a statue of Egerton Ryerson at Toronto’s Ryerson University in June. Both men are widely considered architects of Canada’s residential school system.
Meanwhile, at least seven churches, mostly Catholic, have burned down in recent weeks.
-with files from Anya Zoledziowski
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Anyone experiencing distress or pain as a result of residential schools can call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419). It’s available 24/7.