The Montreal statue of Sir John A. Macdonald that was erected in 1895 in what was then called Dominion Square was long considered the grandest of all the many such tributes to Canada’s first prime minister. Thousands of Montrealers descended on the city centre for the statue’s unveiling, four years after Macdonald’s death.
The memorial, the Montreal Gazette noted in an article published the next day, “was conceived in love and respect for a striking personality and gratitude to a man who had benefited his country. … It will remain there as a monument at once to a man who believed in and laboured for his country and to a people who believed in rendering ‘honour to whom honour is due,’” in the words of Lord Aberdeen, then Canada’s governor-general, who presided over the ceremony.
“With its allegorical figures and decorative elements, the monument underlines the major events of Macdonald’s government, which contributed to the expansion of Canada,” according to the current description on the City of Montreal’s website. “Among the monuments erected to the memory of Macdonald, the one in Montreal is the most imposing and elaborate.”
Or was. The statue was pulled down and decapitated during a 2020 anti-racism protest. At the time, one protest organizer, who insisted he did not know who did it, nevertheless seemed supportive of the vandalization, telling La Presse: “He is a symbol of oppression, of slavery. Would we put up a statue of Hitler in a park?”
It was not the first time that this particular effigy of Macdonald had lost its head. It was similarly guillotined in 1992 on the anniversary of the 1885 hanging of Métis leader Louis Riel. Riel’s execution for his role in the North-West Rebellion, as a result of Macdonald’s actions, was a big mistake that permanently soured many Métis and French Canadians on the country’s first prime minister.
There are good reasons for contemporary Canadians to have mixed feelings about Macdonald’s legacy, which includes what are now clearly understood as deeply harmful attitudes and policies toward Indigenous peoples. But to put Canada’s first prime minister in the same category as one of history’s greatest monsters does seem extreme. Whatever his sins, Macdonald deserves much better from a country that likely would not have come into existence without his determination and vision.
Instead, he has been reduced to a stain on our collective conscience.
That is not only deeply unfair to him, but a frightening statement on the scorched earth approach of current custodians of our history who seek to interpret past events to satisfy current standards of ideological purity. The truth is more complex than that allows for. Yet, if any Canadian historical figure deserves to be evaluated for the full extent of his oeuvre, it is Macdonald.
Alas, he is getting the opposite. The expert committee charged with providing recommendations to Montreal’s city council on what to do with the bronze effigy of Macdonald this week tabled a preliminary report that rejected restoring the statue and returning it to its currently empty pedestal in Place du Canada.
“Considering the assimilationist and genocidal policies that he imposed on Indigenous peoples and the discriminatory acts that he perpetrated toward several groups of people, of which the consequences remain painful and palpable for several communities, the committee believes that, in the spirit of reconciliation, it is necessary to distance ourselves from the legacy of John A. Macdonald and from the colonial vision the monument represents,” the report says.
To add insult to injury, the committee recommends preserving the monument’s base and canopy, absent the statue, to serve as a permanent reminder of the opprobrium in which Macdonald is to be held. “While the definitive absence of the statue from that base that showcased it for 125 years in itself represents a rejection of the values and actions of this contested character, the committee believes that it is necessary to add to this absence a renewed interpretative program that could take different forms to reflect the complexity of the situation.”
The expert committee’s preliminary report offers no insight into said complexity. But if it was really interested in furthering an understanding of Macdonald’s complicated legacy, it would not have been so categorically dismissive of him in the first place.
“Macdonald happened to be in office at the time when the disasters touched off by the disappearance of the buffalo were set in motion,” author Richard Gwyn notes in his biography of the first prime minister, referring to the events that unleashed starvation among Indigenous peoples on the Prairies. “While he clearly could have done better, Macdonald was unquestionably the best available man for a task that, at its core, was near impossible. So his involvement with the Indians – as with Riel and the Métis – became his tragedy.”
Macdonald’s legacy remains far more complex, and on balance positive, than the expert committee is willing to admit, lest it offend its intended audience. And that is a tragedy for all of us.