The minister responsible for Parks Canada says tearing down statues is not the solution when it comes to addressing the darker side of Canadian history.
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna has asked the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada to look at how to address concerns with historical figures like John A. Macdonald, whose role in establishing residential schools has made him a polarizing figure in reconciliation efforts with Indigenous Peoples.
“I’ve tasked them to look at how do you have a thoughtful way with addressing concerns with certain people in our history, but you can’t erase history,” McKenna said.
“I personally believe that it’s important that we recognize our history – the good and bad – and that we tell stories, because it’s by telling stories that we will recognize that we can do better.”
One option may be to erect a second statue or monument next to a controversial figure to represent Indigenous history at a particular site, she suggested.
She has asked for a set of principles to be created to guide decisions when a request is made to rename a national historic site or monument, or to reword commemorative plaques, whether existing names should be changed and under what circumstances.
The board is also looking at ways to commemorate residential school sites and the history and legacy they left behind, in consultation with Indigenous groups.
McKenna was responding Wednesday to a question about how she felt about renaming things in her Ottawa Centre riding that were named after Macdonald after the Victoria city council voted to remove a statue of the first prime minister from the steps of city hall last week in a gesture of reconciliation.
The nation’s capital is teeming with Macdonald memorabilia, from the bronze statue of his likeness on Parliament Hill to the one at the city’s airport arrivals area, an airport also named in part, after the country’s first prime minister.
In 2012, the former Conservative government renamed one of Ottawa’s river parkways after him, and in 2015, a refurbished government conference centre across the street from Parliament Hill was also given his moniker.
McKenna made the directive to the monuments board almost a year ago, a few months after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau decided to rename the building containing his own offices, erasing Hector-Louis Langevin from it. Langevin is considered to be the architect of residential schools while Macdonald was the prime minister who commissioned them.
Residential schools, run by the churches on behalf of the federal government, over the course of more than a century sought to assimilate Indigenous children, forcing them to attend schools often thousands of miles from home. Thousands of students were subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, tasked with documenting the schools’ history, concluded they constituted “cultural genocide.”
McKenna’s perspective seems in keeping with the recommendation of Sen. Murray Sinclair, the former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who has suggested that tearing down statues is “counterproductive” to reconciliation because it “smacks of revenge.”
Sinclair’s preference is for Canada to find more ways to recognize and honour Indigenous history and Indigenous Peoples. He was unavailable for an interview, but his spokeswoman said his thinking on the matter has not changed.
In 2017, the union representing elementary school teachers in Ontario voted in favour of encouraging schools named after Macdonald to find new names. At the time, Trudeau said Ottawa had no plans to remove the name from anything within federal jurisdiction.