'Their time has come': Calls increase for removal of statues linked to colonial legacy
TORONTO -- As statues and monuments of leaders from bygone eras are being toppled in response to growing calls to end systemic racism and discrimination, the sentiment is also growing here in Canada.
Just this week, protesters in Belgium vandalized a statue of King Leopold II, whose rule of Congo led to the death of 10 million people. At Oxford University, there are calls to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes, an architect of the apartheid. And in Bristol, England, a statue of slave trader Edward Colston was dragged through the streets and dumped into the harbour.
Meanwhile in the United States, several statues honouring Confederate generals and slave owners have also been taken down in response to the anti-Black racism protests spurred by the killing of George Floyd.
Canada is not immune to this, either. A Change.org petition calling for the removal of a Sir John A. Macdonald statue in Montreal has received more than 10,000 signatures as of Wednesday evening.
Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, was an architect of the residential school system and led starvation tactics against Indigenous people in the Prairies.
“He was very proactive in starvation of Indigenous people, so why would we want a statue of him?” said Nakuset, executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal.
David MacDonald, a political science professor at the University of Guelph, told CTV News Channel that he believes these statues should be taken down.
“(Macdonald) certainly was the architect of several genocides in Canada, therefore I think it’s time that we continue to address his legacies and there shouldn’t be bridges and schools and all sorts of things named after someone who so blatantly went out to destroy Indigenous nations in this country,” he said.
Montreal Mayor Valerie Plants told reporters on Wednesday that there are no immediate plans to take down the statue, but she is looking at ways to address systemic racism in the community.
“There is also an opportunity to create a dialogue between what was the past and what was right then or what was acceptable then, where at one point we're like, as a society, ‘enough,’” she said.
A similar statue of Macdonald was taken down in Victoria, B.C., in 2018. Its artist said he is ashamed to admit that he didn’t know about residential schools until after he crafted the statue and now believes these monuments should also be taken down.
“We still need to confront our racism towards Indigenous people and if we have to tear down a few sculptures, great,” said John Dann.
Similar petitions in Toronto are calling for the city to rename Dundas Street, which is named after Henry Dundas, who delayed the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, and for Ryerson University to take down its statue of the school’s founder Egerton Ryerson, who also helped develop the residential schools.
Both petitions had more than 4,000 signatures by Wednesday evening.
“These sorts of statues are supposed to represent, in a way, the past, but also the kind of society we want going forward and if they’re giving lessons that are only negative, especially to younger generations of people, then I think they need to come down,” said MacDonald.
Halifax has also had its own controversial statue recently taken down. A monument to Edward Cornwallis, the city’s founder who offered cash bounties to anyone who killed a Mi’kmaw person, was removed in 2018 following increased public pressure.
MacDonald also argues monuments to people like James McGill, the founder of McGill University who was also a slave owner, and Sir. Wilfrid Laurier, who played a role in residential schools, should also be removed.
“These types of people, their time has come,” he said.
Others are wary of the removal of statues, however.
“I think we have to be careful judging the past with our modern sensibilities, so to speak” said Leo Deveau, a historian based out of Halifax.
Additionally, some art historians believe the best course of action is to put these statues into a museum, where they can preserved, but there can be additional context into the person’s life and actions.