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A statue of former Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 3, 2021.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Cities across Canada are again debating what to do with public memorials of John A. Macdonald after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in B.C. announced last week it had discovered the remains of 215 children in unmarked graves on the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

Canada’s first prime minister was an architect of the country’s residential-school system, where as many as 6,000 Indigenous children are believed to have died. Statues of Macdonald have been vandalized by protesters and removed by municipal governments in recent years as his policies toward Indigenous peoples, including the withholding of food and forced relocation from their lands, have come under renewed scrutiny.

At an emotional public meeting on Wednesday in Kingston, where Macdonald had close ties, Indigenous leaders and local residents debated what to do with a prominent statue of the controversial leader, with one man suggesting members of the public might tear it down if the city doesn’t act first. The fate of several Macdonald memorials in other communities is now in limbo, as residents and politicians grapple with complicated questions of historical memory.

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The Kamloops revelations have already prompted the removal of one Macdonald statue in Charlottetown. As in many places, the decision about Macdonald’s place in the public sphere was hastened by defacement or protest. Charlottetown’s Macdonald statue had a profane sign and two small moccasins hung around its neck shortly before it was removed by city workers on Tuesday.

A towering statue of Macdonald in downtown Montreal was toppled by activists at a demonstration in favour of defunding the police last August. The statue is now in a municipal warehouse while Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante holds public consultations on a new framework for memorials of historic figures, spokesperson Geneviève Jutras said.

Some prominent politicians have spoken out in recent days against removing statues and names from public buildings, including Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller. During a press conference on Wednesday held, notably, in Ottawa’s Sir John A. Macdonald Building, Mr. Miller said that taking down statues meant avoiding the responsibility of facing up to the country’s past.

“Knocking things down, breaking things is not my preferred option; turning my eyes away from things is not my preferred option,” he said. “Looking at things as painful as they are, explaining why they are, is my preferred option.”

Perhaps no other city has more at stake in the debate about Macdonald’s legacy than Kingston, where John A. is a favourite son and tourist draw. The prime minister practised law in Kingston and served there as an alderman before representing the eastern Ontario city in Parliament; his name is now on a major boulevard, a public school and a commemorative locomotive stationed in a downtown park.

Local anger has been focused on the massive statue of Macdonald near Queen’s University (which, for its part, decided to remove Macdonald’s name from its law school building last fall). Last summer, city council approved a series of gestures aimed at tempering Kingston’s long-time celebration of the controversial leader, including removing the text of a laudatory plaque at the base of the statue.

Although concern about vandalism led the city to install security cameras nearby last summer, and a petition for removal has gathered nearly 4,000 signatures, Mayor Bryan Paterson argued in an interview on Thursday that the public doesn’t want to see the statue come down entirely. Better to leave it up, with more contextual information, as a way “to tell the missing stories of the dark chapters of Canadian history.”

“There are some people who are calling for a change of course, to remove the statue of Macdonald, for example,” he said. “But certainly the strong majority of Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents that I’m hearing … is sparking a stronger resolve to continue on the path that we’re on.”

Debate is still fierce in the city about the best way to handle the memorial, however. At a public meeting of the city’s recently created History & Legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald Working Group on Wednesday, Indigenous leaders and Kingston residents disagreed about how to alter the monument in light of the Kamloops discovery.

Chief Dave Mowat of Alderville First Nation said Macdonald’s guilt should not obscure the role of other Canadians in creating the residential-school system. “There’s a lot of individuals who need to be held to account.”

Laurel Claus-Johnson, a member of the Katarokwi Indigenous Grandmothers Council, argued that the statue should remain as an “opportunity to educate,” but that it should be literally taken down off its towering stone pedestal. “Have him standing on the ground,” she said.

One Indigenous man who called into the meeting, Dan Mitchell, said residents might take the statue down themselves. “We’ll get to a place where we’ll say, ‘We’re done talking, we’re done pleading, we’re going to do it. ... If you won’t take it down, we’ll take it down.’”

Across the country, a growing number of Macdonald memorials are in storage with uncertain futures as the stigma around his policies grows. A Macdonald statue in front of the Ontario Legislature remains boarded up after being vandalized last summer. Speaker Ted Arnott said in a written statement he was working with an advisory panel “to determine how the legislature can better demonstrate the accomplishments of the past, while at the same time acknowledging the horrific injustices that are also part of our history.”

In Wilmot, Ont., a small town that accepted a Macdonald statue in 2016 after Wilfrid Laurier University removed it amidst a campus outcry, the leader’s likeness is now hidden from view. The town council voted to relocate it after protests last July. It is currently in storage while the township conducts a public consultation about the statue and an accompanying project to host statues of Canada’s prime ministers, said acting chief administrative officer Sandy Jackson.

In Western Canada, Macdonald has not fared any better. The city of Regina voted to remove his statue from a local park in April, taking it down for security reasons without fanfare.

Victoria removed a likeness of Macdonald from outside its City Hall in 2018 and is now in the midst of an Indigenous-led consultation process to determine the statue’s future. Mayor Lisa Helps said the gravesites in Kamloops could be a factor in the decision.

“Obviously the 215 children’s bodies changes things, and maybe accelerates things,” she said. “Personally, I can’t see it being installed in any other public place, except for maybe the Royal BC Museum.”

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