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The statue of Sir John A. Macdonald is seen after being vandalized in Montreal, Friday, August 17, 2018.

Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A towering statue of Sir John A. Macdonald in downtown Montreal has been drenched in red paint in an act of vandalism that coincides with a national reckoning over the legacy of Canada’s first prime minister.

Activists describing themselves as “anti-colonial” and “anti-racist” posted video of the overnight spray-painting, saying they acted in support of Victoria’s decision to remove a statue of Macdonald from the steps of its city hall.

“We demand that city authorities in Montreal take measures, similar to the City of Victoria, to remove the Macdonald monument,” the group said. It calls Macdonald “a white supremacist” who “directly contributed to the genocide of Indigenous peoples with the creation of the brutal residential schools system, as well as other measures meant to destroy native cultures and traditions.”

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The vandalism took place Thursday night despite the presence of numerous security cameras surrounding the 17-metre-high monument. The Macdonald statue is one of the most visible in the city. It stands on a columned pedestal in a square on busy René Lévesque Boulevard in the heart of the city’s business and tourist district.

Police said video captured the spray-painting, but not the people behind it.

“We don’t see any suspects, just the paint,” Montreal police spokesman Raphaël Bergeron said.

City workers were using low-pressure steam to remove the paint Friday and had completed most of the clean-up by midafternoon.

The attack on the Macdonald monument in Montreal comes amid a growing debate over how to view historical figures through a modern moral lens.

The legacy of Canada’s first prime minister has come under growing scrutiny over his role in the creation of the residential school system and his demeaning attitudes toward Indigenous people.

Montreal has given no sign it plans to rid the city of the high-profile Macdonald statue in Place du Canada, although successive administrations at city hall have made gestures of reconciliation with the Indigenous population. For example, the city has said it plans to rename Amherst Street after an Indigenous leader. Jeffery Amherst played a role in advocating germ warfare against native peoples in the 18th century.

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Macdonald’s monument has been a favourite target for vandals in Montreal over the years. Quebec separatist groups defaced it repeatedly in the 1960s. In 1992, vandals decapitated the statue on the anniversary of the hanging of Louis Riel, considered by some to be a Father of Confederation, but whom Macdonald decided should be executed as a traitor.

James Kimpan, a city employee who was removing paint from the statue on Friday, said it’s the fourth time he’s been called to the site to remove paint in a year. Vandals also struck last fall and twice this year, he said.

Still, Mr. Kimpan, a painter and restorer, said it’s wrong to remove the statue because of the leader’s controversial past.

“Yes, he was racist,” he said. “But we’ll never change history. Whether a person is good or bad won’t change history. And vandalizing won’t change history either. At least with a statue, you can know history.”

The City of Montreal said that while it is committed to "forging strong ties " with the native community, it is not considering taking down the Macdonald statue.

“The city is more concerned with adding testaments to native culture and history, rather than removing existing structures,” spokeswoman Marilyne Laroche said.

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She said the city expected to have the statue entirely cleaned up by Saturday.

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