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A statue of former prime minister John A. Macdonald lies on the ground at Canada Park in Montreal on Aug. 29, 2020.

ERIC THOMAS/AFP/Getty Images

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cautioned against extremism in the political debate over historical figures such as Sir John A. Macdonald as the country works to address systemic racism in government institutions.

Speaking Monday in Montreal, where protesters toppled a statue of Canada’s first prime minister during a rally Saturday, Mr. Trudeau said vandalism is not the answer and that he was “deeply disappointed” by what had happened. He also said strong reactions driven by outrage are not a responsible way to move forward.

Mr. Trudeau said Macdonald did some very positive things for Canada but also made decisions and comments that deserve to be looked at more critically. He said the same is true for all former prime ministers, including his own father, who led Canada from 1968 to 1979 and from 1980 until 1984.

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“I understand the impatience, the frustration, of Canadians who faced systemic discrimination and racism throughout their lives and their concern that we act quickly on that,” he said. “Because I myself am impatient. We need to move forward quickly and in the right ways on countering systemic discrimination, and our government will do just that.

“But we are a country of laws, and we’re a country that needs to respect those laws, even as we seek to improve and change them. And those kinds of acts of vandalism are not advancing the path toward greater justice and equality in this country.”

Canada’s first prime minister is praised for his role in the creation of Canada and for linking the country through the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. But he also supported policies that are now widely viewed as racist, including Canada’s residential school system and the head tax on Chinese immigrants.

Mr. Trudeau said the statue issue is generating extreme reactions that further divide Canadians.

“We’ve seen, following that, people on either side of the spectrum trying to use these elements as a way of furthering debates,” he said, adding later in French: “I think that we’re seeing, particularly on the extreme right, that they’re trying to start culture wars and divide Canadians on issues such as that.”

He did not name anyone in particular.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney reacted to the toppling of the statue by calling the protesters a “mob” and a “roving band of thugs.” He also offered to install the statue on the grounds of the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton if it was not wanted by the city of Montreal.

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New Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole also weighed in, stating online that Canada would not exist without Sir John A. Macdonald.

“It’s time politicians grow a backbone and stand up for our country,” he said.

Senator Murray Sinclair, the former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, told The Globe on Monday that he suggests that plaques go along with statues and monuments of historical figures in order to tell the full story of the individual.

“You can’t tell the story of Sir John A. Macdonald’s creation of Canada, his efforts to ensure that Canada spread from sea to sea to sea without telling the story of what he did to Indigenous people in order to make that happen,” he said. “Why don’t they include that as part of that story? Because he did that.”

The senator said he is also more interested in asking why there are not more statues of Indigenous people who have contributed to Canada, who have stood up for their people and who have ensured their role in society has not been lost.

With a report from Kristy Kirkup

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