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Canada has a racist statue problem, too

Here are some of the flashpoints.

by Sarah Krichel
Aug 25 2017, 3:48pm

South of the border, protests have cropped up in a number of states over its vestigial Confederate monuments. Protesters have taken to the streets calling for monuments to be torn down, confronting conservatives calling for their preservation.

In Canada, a similar reckoning is underway over who is venerated, and how.

Those who defend the statues excuse the faults of the men they commemorate — be they slave owners in the United States, or parties to the genocide of Indigenous peoples in Canada — as being a product of “a different time.”

The other side says although history is important to remember, the figures must be remembered in the right way, for the right reasons. “Put them in a museum,” statue opponents have argued.

Removing, rebuilding, renaming, and replacing historical monuments is hardly a new affair for Canada. A century ago, Berlin, Ontario held a referendum to change its name in the midst of World War I. It has been Kitchener ever since.

More recently, there has also been the ongoing issue of renaming racist sports team names like the Morden Redskins — much like the similarly-named Washington team — and the Edmonton Eskimos.

Indigenous educator, activist and artist Eddy Robinson, who is of Missanabie Cree First Nation, believes the reason people in Canada are obsessed with statues is because they have invested into the idea of what Canada is and represents. “Well you should invest in what Canada can be, and the potential it’s not living up to.”

Here are some of the flashpoints in Canada.

Edward Cornwallis, Halifax

In the centre of downtown Halifax, a statue to Lieutenant General Edward Cornwallis stands in the middle of a park that bears his name as well.

“He’s being kept alive with hate … We’re going to take him down with love, we’re going to take him down with ceremony, we’re going to take him down with prayer,” Elizabeth Marshall said last month at a “Removing Cornwallis” ceremony in Halifax park, which drew hundreds of people.

That ceremony, which was held again last week in the wake of the deadly protests in Charlottesville, was calling on the city and province to tear down the statue commemorating the English general and founder of Halifax, who died in 1776.

Words like “brave” and “hero” are often used with his name in relation to how he led the British’s “courageous colonizing.”

Words like “brave” and “hero” are often used with his name in relation to how he led the British’s “courageous colonizing.”

That colonizing put Cornwallis at odds with the Mi’kmaq population that claimed the area both as their hunting and fishing territory but also as a point of religious pilgrimage. The Mi’kmaq people launched a guerrilla campaign, which led settlers to turn to Cornwallis for an answer on how to colonize.

Cornwallis then issued a “Scalping Proclamation” which had a government-paid bounty issued to anyone who murdered a Mi’kmaq person, including children.

The ceremony calling for the statue’s removal drew scorn from the province’s alt-right — including the Proud Boys, a self styled “Western Chauvenist fraternity” that crashed the Indigenous cermony held on Canada Day. An anonymous Twitter account then published personal details on people had supported the Indigenous protesters.

It later emerged that the Proud Boys in question were members of the Canadian military, and could face sanction.

Gavin McInnes, an alt-right media personality, took to CBC News to contend that the Mi’kmaq had allied with the French amid European conflicts in the new world, although he failed to point out that such a proclamation was never issued against the French. (McInnes was a co-founder of VICE. He and the company severed ties in 2008.)

Egerton Ryerson, Toronto

Ryerson University faces a similar issue around its namesake, Egerton Ryerson, a Methodist minister and public education advocate whose 1867 report contributed to the development of the residential school system — a government program that removed Indigenous children from their homes and forced them into state or church-run schools that were rife with abuse and mistreatment., Residential schools are seen as the root of intergenerational trauma that lingers today. In the midst of celebrations around the 150th anniversary of confederation in June, the university’s student union and the Indigenous community called for the removal of the statue in the centre of their campus.

The push to scrub his likeness from the university caused an uproar on and off their campus. A Globe and Mail opinion piece stated Ryerson’s “anti-Indigenous” label is undeserved, because of his strong relationship with the Ojibway nation — who were Catholic — and his practice of their language.

“This attempt to rescue Egerton Ryerson was really disingenuous.”

The school’s independent newspaper published an article in response a day later, speaking to the actual content of Ryerson’s report to implement a residential schooling system, which would have Indigenous children work two hours a day and take English and religion classes. “It was condescending to students, patronizing to the Ryerson community to assume that we had not done our research and not known who Ryerson was. This attempt to rescue Egerton Ryerson was really disingenuous,” Hayden King, Indigenous education advisor at Ryerson, told The Eyeopener.

Jefferson Davis, Montreal

While much of the debate around pulling down memorials to historical figures with checkered pasts in Canada relate to the fledgling nation’s colonization of the land, Canada is not without its own confederate hangovers.

A plaque commemorating Jefferson Davis, a president of the Confederate States of America, was recently removed from a Hudson’s Bay Company building in downtown Montreal


The United Daughters of the Confederacy, a non-profit organization based in Richmond, VIrginia supplied the plaque that was placed on the department store in 1957, commemorating the former president, senator and “war hero.”

Davis was charged with treason after the fall of the Confederacy, quietly moved to Montreal and lived with this man named Lovell in a residence that once stood where the department store now is.

A storm of tweets were sent this month to the mayor of Montreal Denis Coderre demanding the removal of the plaque. Ultimately, it was up to the building who owned the plaque to remove it, which they swiftly did after attention on the issue picked up.

“People are caught in this cycle of abuse and ignoring the abusers because that’s what these alpha white people of privilege have been doing to Indigenous people and to other diverse groups as much as us.”

People have celebrated the removal of the man who was “almost solely” known for his fighting to keep slavery running.

Meanwhile, Jefferson Davis’s great-great-grandson, Bertram Hayes-Davis, told The New York Times that his legacy being reduced to a statute does not permit his full story to be told.

Robinson, the Indigenous educator, said the issue is complicated.

“People don’t know the crimes [Abraham Lincoln committed] against Indigenous people, but Native Americans know exactly what happened and how he ordered the death of 300 people … but does that negate what he did for slavery?” he asked.

“People are caught in this cycle of abuse and ignoring the abusers because that’s what these alpha white people of privilege have been doing to Indigenous people and to other diverse groups as much as us,” he added.

Matthew Baillie Begbie, New Westminster

Back in June, the Law Society of British Columbia removed the statue of Matthew Baillie Begbie, a judge who disregarded the rules of military engagement and hanged six chiefs of the Tsilhqot’in nations after their forces fought back against colonizers on their land, killing 19 settlers. A Vancouver Sun editorial spoke to why the removal of Begbie’s statue in New Westminster, B.C. and the memory of his “positive and negative” contributions to history is unfair and counterproductive. The historian argued that Begbie was “more sensitive” to the needs of Indigenous people than many of his counterparts.

Swastika-marked anchor, Pointe-des-Cascades

After the municipal government refused to remove a swastika on an anchor in the middle of a park near Montreal, Erasing Hate founder Corey Fleischer did it himself yesterday. “It is no longer a sign of peace,” he argued, but he was nonetheless removed by provincial police after the mayor confronted him for disobeying the city’s wishes. According to Mayor Gilles Santerre, the “local piece of history” — which was found washed-up in the early 1990s — will soon see a plaque that serves as a disclaimer for its controversy.

Watered-down confederate mascot, Kitchener

An alumni of a Kitchener, Ontario high school took to Facebook to remind Canadians to look in the mirror before being smug amid the political climate in the U.S. Mohamed Salih invoked the former mascot of the high school that carried a Confederate flag, which students then protested. The school eventually changed the mascot but kept the same concept, which Salih wrote “[hasn’t] fooled anyone.”

Langevin Bloc, Ottawa

Until recently, a father of confederation’s name was affixed to the side of the building that houses the prime minister’s office, serving as a reminder to Indigenous peoples of the nation’s history of colonialism and racism. Hector Louis Langevin was the minister responsible for setting up the residential school system, who argued forcefully for splitting Indigenous children from their parents. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau changed the name of the building as a step towards reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

John A. Macdonald school, Ontario

A motion was passed at the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario to rename an Ontario public school due the first prime minister of Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples, CBC reported. Many argued there’s no chance for a disclaimer because the name celebrates Macdonald being renowned as a father of Confederation, but does not acknowledge the way the former prime minister and minister of Indian affairs used starvation to kill off an Indigenous community during his colonizing of the West. Some pushback says this is “political correctness on steroids.” Even Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne said that the name of this school is integral to the teaching of history. “We need to teach our children the full history of this country — including colonialism, our Indigenous peoples and their history and about what our founders did to create Canada and make it the country it is today.”