As part of its reconciliation process with Indigenous peoples, the city of Victoria will remove a statue of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, from its city hall "so that the family members and other Indigenous people do not need to walk past this painful reminder of colonial violence each time they enter the doors of their municipal government," the mayor announced on Wednesday.
MacDonald was also an architect of the residential school system, said Mayor Lisa Helps in a statement, admitting that she had no knowledge of his role in developing the system until the city began its reconciliation program.
In 1883 in the House of Commons, MacDonald called Indigenous people “savages” and argued that Indigenous children should not live with their parents.
“When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian,” MacDonald said. “He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly impressed upon myself, as head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”
Victoria is the first Canadian city to remove a monument to a man with a racist legacy often overlooked — an issue that has also been playing out in the United States when it comes to statues venerating pro-slavery Confederate figures.
Victoria is planning to remove the statue on August 11 and store it in a facility until they can figure out an appropriate way to “recontextualize” MacDonald. In its place, there will be a plaque that explains the decision to remove the statue and MacDonald’s “complex history as both the first Prime Minister of Canada and a leader of violence against Indigenous Peoples.”
After some time, a cleansing, blessing and healing ceremony will take place in the space where the statue stood.
The prospect of removing monuments to MacDonald has come up in other cities. Last year, a petition was launched in Regina to have a statue there removed and protesters covered it in plastic wrap and caution tape. In Montreal, anti-racist protesters spray-painted that city’s statue red, citing MacDonald’s contributions “to the genocide of Indigenous peoples with the creation of the brutal residential schools system.”
There’s also ongoing national debate among schools to rename buildings named after the former prime minister, and last year, a group of historians proposed removing MacDonald’s name from a prestigious book award. Not everyone agrees though, with critics like former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall warning against the "slippery slope" of removing historic names, arguing that words like "savage" while unacceptable today were commonplace at the time.
In Halifax, a committee is currently debating what to do with a statue of Edward Cornwallis, the city’s founder, who offered a bounty to anyone who killed a Mi’kmaq person. After much protest, the statue was taken down earlier this year and now sits in a storage facility.
South of the border, 75 Confederate memorials have been renamed or removed in the year since the violent Unit the Right rally in Charlottesville, North Carolina, according to the Southern Poverty Law Centre.
Cover image of a statue of Canada's first Prime Minister, John A. MacDonald, outside the entrance to City Hall in Victoria, British Columbia on September 23, 2017. Photo by Don Denton/The Canadian Press