This story has been updated with comment from Montreal's Native Women's Shelter.
Activists in Montreal have covered in paint a monument to Canada’s first prime minister, as calls grow across the country to remove statues of John A. Macdonald and other historical figures amid mass anti-racism protests.
An anonymous group of activists, dubbing themselves “anti-colonial vandals,” said they threw purple paint on the Macdonald Monument at Place du Canada overnight on Monday in protest of Macdonald’s policies towards Indigenous peoples.
Macdonald pushed for the creation of Canada’s residential school system, which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission said in 2015 was the state’s main tool to carry out a “cultural genocide” against Indigenous peoples.
“The Macdonald Monument is the Canadian equivalent of a racist, Confederate statue in the United States,” one of the activists, using the name Seamus Grewal, said in a statement Monday morning.
“It stands as a symbol of colonialism and the subjugation of Indigenous peoples. The Macdonald Monument celebrates an individual whose policies are directly responsible for the genocide of Indigenous peoples in Canada, and the celebration of white supremacy.”
The words “RCMP Rape Native Women/Kill Native Men” have also been spray-painted at the base of the monument.
Mass protests against anti-Black violence and police brutality in Canada and the U.S.—sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota—have led to growing calls to tear down monuments to slave owners and other historical architects of white supremacy in both countries.
Protesters beheaded a statue of Christopher Columbus in Boston and another monument to the Italian explorer was toppled in St. Paul, while cities elsewhere in the U.S. are taking down monuments to Confederate-era soldiers and leaders, among others.
In the U.K.,, a monument to Edward Colston, a 17th-Century British slave trader, was pushed into Bristol harbour last week, and a statue of Sir Winston Churchill in Parliament Square in London was boarded up after protesters spray-painted graffiti on it.
A petition to remove the Macdonald Monument in Montreal has garnered over 16,000 signatures to date, stating that “there is absolutely no reason or room for a racist, colonial, white nationalist to be celebrated on unceded Indigenous land.”
Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante said last week that she did not have “immediate plans” to remove the monument, suggesting instead that a plaque could be erected at the site to explain “who this person was and what are the concerns right now.”
“I do think there’s also an opportunity to create a dialogue between what was the past and what was right then, or what was acceptable then, where at one point we’re like, as a society, ‘enough,’” Plante told reporters.
But that does not go far enough for many community members, who continue to call on Montreal to take down the Macdonald Monument, which stands in a park near the corner of Peel St. and Rene-Levesque Blvd. in the city centre.
“Why the resistance to take it down?” asked Nakuset, executive director of the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal, who said the statue must be removed. “If you’re not outraged, that’s a problem. Why isn’t (Plante) outraged?”
Nakuset said Macdonald was responsible for many harmful policies, including residential schools, the forced starvation of Indigenous communities, and the pass system, which controlled Indigenous movement in Canada for decades.
“It’s almost like a slap in the face for all Indigenous people to walk by and know about all the harmful things he did to try to eradicate Indigenous people, and then to have to go to a school named Sir John A. Macdonald, or to see a big statue of him in a park,” she told VICE.
“It looks like you’re glorifying someone that (purposely) tried to get rid of Indigenous people.”
This is not the first time the monument has been vandalized—nor is Montreal the only place debating what to do with statues, monuments, or streets named after controversial historical figures.
In Toronto, a petition to rename Dundas Street has garnered over 10,000 signatures. Henry Dundas, a Scottish politician, blocked the abolition of slavery at the end of the 18th Century. His “actions to preserve the profiteering of his friends in the slave trade, cost tens of thousands of lives, if not more,” the petition states.
In June 2019, Montreal renamed Amherst Street to Atateken Street, a Kanien’kéha word that means “brotherhood.” Jefferey Amherst, a British general, advocated for the use of smallpox blankets to infect and kill Indigenous peoples in North America.
Meanwhile, another Montreal petition, which has garnered over 2,600 signatures, is currently calling on McGill University to take down a statue on campus of the university’s founder, James McGill, who owned Black and Indigenous slaves.
Jemark Earle, the first Black president of the Students’ Society of McGill University, addressed the question of the founder’s legacy in a column Monday in the McGill Tribune.
“As McGill prepares to celebrate its bicentennial anniversary, it is important that we ask ourselves: ‘What kind of university do we want to be?’” Earle wrote. “It appears that students and administrators have different visions. Most emblematically, James McGill’s racist legacy is acknowledged by all except the university’s administrators.”
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