Wilfrid Laurier University will have to reconsider a plan to place 22 statues of Canadian prime ministers on campus after strong opposition from community members who say the public art project is insensitive to First Nations and other minority groups.
"It's disingenuous to make a commitment to indigeneity and recognize that land belonged to First Nations people and then go and erect statues of leaders who took the land away from them, and were responsible for policies of genocide," said Jonathan Finn, the chair of the department of communication studies.
In the summer, Dr. Finn began a petition opposing the project that has garnered almost 1,000 signatures. On Tuesday, the university's Senate passed a motion he had introduced asking the school's board of governors to cancel the plan. Other groups on campus, including historical institutes and art curators, have made statements opposing the project.
"It will create, at the very least, an uncomfortable environment for 99 per cent of students to walk through a place filled with statues of white men and one white woman, people who have perpetuated crimes against First Nations," said Jaydenne Lavallie, a fourth-year student in global studies who is Métis. "The very last statue that would go up is of Stephen Harper, a man who was just voted out of office and who used his last month in office to foment anti-Muslim feelings," she said.
The casting of the bronze sculptures is privately funded by a community group in Kitchener-Waterloo and designed to celebrate Canada's 150th birthday in 2017. The works had been destined for Victoria Park in central Kitchener, but city council turned down the idea after public opposition. In the summer, the university agreed to put them on its Waterloo campus: The John A. Macdonald statue was unveiled in June.
This weekend, the university administration will talk to the leaders of the community group to see if there is room for compromise, said Joel Peters, an assistant vice-president, external relations, at the university.
"We were certainly aware that at various points there are people who have had negative reactions to the project. Our intention is to stimulate discussion about history, about how did our country evolve from 1867 to where we are now. We are welcoming the discussion," he said.
Many say the controversy could have been avoided if the university had consulted more widely.
"Parliament wants to encourage the participation of diverse groups for the 150th celebrations. No one here was asked what they wanted," said Nelson Joannette, a history professor at the university.
Dr. Joannette said one place the university could find better ideas is its own Brantford location. That campus sits near Victoria Park and a statue of Joseph Brant, the Mohawk leader who was loyal to British forces during the U.S. War of Independence and received land grants in return.
"In 1886, business people, industrialists and native people got together and decided to be creative. It is the only Victoria Park in Canada that does not have a statue of Queen Victoria," Dr. Joannette said.
For those who think significant political leaders deserve to be recognized, Dr. Joannette also pointed out that a few of the 22 prime ministers had short stints.
"[Charles] Tupper served 69 days. More recently Joe Clark or Kim Campbell were not there long," he said.
Those who oppose the project say the decision to accept the statues contradicts commitments Wilfrid Laurier has made to diversity, and particularly to increasing the number of aboriginal students, Dr. Finn said.
"Imagine any other marginalized group walking around campus and seeing those 22 monuments celebrating great white leaders. What kind of message does that communicate? It flies in the face of what contemporary universities are about."