A statue of Sir John A. Macdonald is set to be removed from the steps of Victoria’s City Hall this weekend, as communities across the country struggle to reconcile the legacy of the country’s founding prime minister with his treatment of Indigenous people.
The plan to remove the statue, which easily passed a city council vote on Thursday, follows year-long discussions with two local First Nations who argued the statue has become a painful reminder of colonialism. But it has also inflamed a debate about whether historical figures should be judged through a modern lens, and how to weigh abuses against Macdonald’s role in shaping the country.
“If we’re serious about reconciliation as a city, which we are, then part of our responsibility is to make sure that the public spaces in Victoria not only start to reflect less of a colonial legacy, but also start to have the signs and symbols and the presence of the Lekwungen people throughout the city,” Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said.
"The other, more concrete piece is that the statue is literally right on the front steps of City Hall, kind of in an overbearing way. For the Indigenous family members who come here to gather, and the many other Indigenous people who come to City Hall for whatever reason, they continuously have to walk past what is a very poignant symbol of colonial violence, of the residential school system.”
Similar debates about Macdonald’s legacy have played out across the country, with varying results.
Advocates of removing statues and his name from public buildings point to his contempt for Indigenous people and his role as architect of Canada’s residential school system. In the House of Commons, he described Indigenous parents as “savages" who would raise their children to be the same.
“It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the department, that the Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence,” he said in 1883, "and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools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.”
But some historians and supporters of the former prime minister have argued that his contributions to the founding of the country can’t be washed away.
“He brought together the colonies to make them stronger and created a country,” said Robin McKee, chair of Hamilton’s Sir John A. Macdonald Society. “I don’t know of any man that has created a country as strong and as good as Canada.”
Macdonald oversaw bringing Manitoba, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island into Confederation, and he drove the creation of the transcontinental railway, which was a condition for B.C. to join Confederation. He also established the North West Mounted Police.
The Songhees and Esquimalt nations, whose traditional territory includes Victoria, pushed for the statue’s removal and in letters posted to the city’s website welcomed the plan.
“Removing this statue is an important step in the city’s reconciliation journey, and is a symbol of progress towards an end to discrimination and oppression," wrote Katie Hooper, executive director of the Esquimalt Nation.
Penny Bryden, a professor of history at the University of Victoria, says the debate reflects a changing view of Macdonald.
“The history that you choose to talk about at any point is a reflection of where you are at that moment in time,” said Dr. Bryden. “We’re at a place now where Macdonald isn’t the kind of historical character you want to associate with the front of city hall.”
City councillor Ben Isitt, who supported the proposal in Thursday’s vote, said the statue should still be on public display, but in a context that explores the full scope of Macdonald’s impact on the country.
“Right now, if you go to Victoria City Hall, there is zero context” said Mr. Isitt, who has previously taught history at the University of Victoria, Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia. “We definitely need to know our history but that’s not happening with our current approach to commemoration. Something has to change.”
One councillor, Geoff Young, voted against the plan. In an interview before the vote, he said he would be comfortable removing the statue from its current spot outside city hall, but he said it should remain on display somewhere else.
"There is hardly a person honoured by a statue where history has not re-evaluated some of their views,” said Mr. Young. “And I think the idea that all of those should be simply hidden from view forever, I’m not sure it’s the correct one.”
Last August, the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO) passed a resolution recommending that the province’s schools rename facilities bearing Macdonald’s name given his role in the “genocide against Indigenous people.”
The Canadian Historical Association’s members voted this past May to rename its prestigious Sir John A. Macdonald Prize as the CHA Prize for Best Scholarly Book in Canadian History.
A statue of Edward Cornwallis, the controversial military officer who founded Halifax, was removed from a park bearing his name in that city in January. The University of Victoria in June, 2017, removed the name of Joseph Trutch, B.C.'s first lieutenant-governor, from a residence building because of his actions trampling over the rights of Indigenous peoples in the 19th century.
With reports from Sunny Dhillon and James Keller.