What to do with controversial statues? The City of Victoria and Sir John A. Macdonald

What to do with controversial statues?
The City of Victoria and Sir John A. Macdonald[1]

By PATRICK WOLFE

Symbols matter. Just look at the response to Victoria City Council’s decision to remove the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald from the entranceway to City Hall. Reaction ranges from the flood of letters to the Victoria Times Colonist to a feature editorial in The Globe and Mail, which argues, “Removing emblems of Canadian identity for their ties to colonial brutality… is a slope that gets slippery fast, even before it reaches the name Victoria.”

This is an unfair conclusion given the city’s declared goal of finding “a way to recontextualize” the statue. But the mayor and company invited this conclusion by their precipitous and provocative decision. They had other options.

Sculptor John Dann’s 1981 bronze statue portrays Canada’s first prime minister as a dignified and dashing figure. It clearly does not tell the whole story about Macdonald or what he represents to some people. Given his mixed and controversial legacy, particularly his part in establishing the residential-school system and his order to remove “Indigenous communities from the proposed route of the Canadian Pacific Railway and [to withhold food relief] ‘until the Indians are on the verge of starvation,”[2] how can he be an appropriate welcoming figure to City Hall?

Rather than outright removal, the city could have announced its intention to move the statue and recontextualize it, and it could have invited proposals on how to accomplish this. Another option was to move the statue into Centennial Square on the other side of City Hall where it could continue to be displayed until plans for its recontextualization were formulated.

There are, of course, many statues of Macdonald across the country. One of them can be found on the Prime Ministers’ Path, a sculpture park on the grounds of Castle Kilbride in Baden, Ontario, 20 minutes from Kitchener-Waterloo. The work of Ruth Abernethy, it is called “A Canadian Conversation,” which is more than a little ironic, as is one of Macdonald’s nicknames, “the Chieftain.” Abernethy’s Macdonald shows him standing behind two empty chairs, his arms outstretched with his hands resting on the backs of the chairs, inviting people to have a seat and talk.[3]

The remote and bucolic setting of the Prime Ministers’ Path and Abernethy’s sculpture seem a long way from our current controversy. Yet if we borrow from them and from some of the thoughtful letters published in the Times Colonist, I believe we can find a way not only to re-display Dann’s Macdonald, but also to recontextualize it in a new statuary attraction intended to portray important chapters in Canadian history, including their sharp edges and ugly consequences. Unlike the Prime Ministers’ Path, this attraction would be in a prominent, easily-accessed, urban location.

I’m talking about broadening the purpose of Centennial Square to include within it a Reconciliation Circle around and set back from the fountain that would consist of pairings of statues, along with accompanying narratives. Possible pairings include: Dann’s Macdonald and a sculpture depicting the residential-school system; a statue of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and a sculpture of Japanese-Canadians interned during World War II and/or the MS St. Louis and the European Jews who were refused entry into Canada during the same period; the statue of the Crown Colony of British Columbia’s first Chief Justice, Matthew Baillie Begbie, which was removed last year from the foyer of the B.C. Law Society’s building,[4] and a sculpture of the Tsilhqot’in chiefs he ordered hanged for murder in 1864, who, since 2014, have been exonerated by the B.C. and federal governments as warriors who were defending their land and people.[5]

Macdonald, King, and Begbie are examples of notable Canadians who made important contributions, but whose legacies also cast dark shadows that need to be understood in the light of a new day. The point of the proposed pairings and narratives is to expand the container that holds the public expression of our history and to enable a fuller understanding of some of the complexities of our past.

Consider this from the Globe editorial and note the words I’ve highlighted in italics: “Sir John A. Macdonald perfectly embodied the founding ethos of our country. Most of us are still indebted to that ethos. We may have renounced Sir John A’s racist attitudes, but we have not renounced the fruits of them, which we know as Western Canada. In that sense, both the defenders and assailants of his record have it right. Our first prime minister wove the country together and he cruelly stamped out Indigenous cultures. He accomplished the former, in part, by recourse to the latter.”

More than a century ago the philosopher George Santayana wrote: “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness…. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But he was only partly right. Developments in science, technology, and social justice demonstrate that change is also vital to progress. Both retentiveness and change are required to effectively meet the current challenge.

Patrick Wolfe taught Canadian history at North Island College in 1977, before starting a 33-year career with the B.C. public service.

  1. This commentary was initially published until the title, “John A. Macdonald statue: Both retention and change are needed,” Victoria Times Colonist, Sunday, August 19, 2018, p. D3.
  2. “Grappling with the legacy of Sir John A.”, Editorial, The Globe and Mail, Saturday, August 11, 2018, p. O10.
  3. Peter Shawn Taylor, “Hinterland who’s who,” The Globe and Mail, Saturday, June 30, 2018, p. O5.
  4. Hamar Foster and John McLaren, “Echoes of BC’s past in Quebec unveiling law,” Victoria Times Colonist, Thursday, October 16, 2017, p. A11 (re: the removal of the Begbie statue).
  5. Premier Christy Clark’s October 23, 2014 statement of exoneration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXCsxf4-EPE Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s March 26, 2018 statement of exoneration: https://globalnews.ca/video/4106479/justin-trudeau-delivers-message-of-exoneration-for-tsilhqotin-chiefs-hung-in-1864-chilcotin-war Both statements accessed August 12, 2018.
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