The City of Victoria, B.C., is being accused of “historical vandalism” after councillors voted seven to one in favour of removing a statue of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, from outside their city hall.
But for local First Nations who have been calling for the statue’s removal, the move is being called a small step toward reconciliation.
Macdonald, whose face is on the $10 bill, has long been celebrated for joining three colonies together into Canada in 1867, and then creating a railway to the Pacific Ocean that allowed Canada to expand across the northern half of the continent rather than being subsumed into the United States.
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps acknowledges that Macdonald helped to found the country, but she says he “was a key architect of the Indian Residential School system” and that makes the 37-year-old statue a “painful reminder of colonial violence.”
Macdonald, as Helps pointed out in a blog post explaining her support for the statue’s removal, said in 1879 that “Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”
Over the following century, more than 150,000 Indigenous people attended residential schools, where their cultural ties were severed and many suffered abuse. Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologized for the system in 2008, but Indigenous people say the harms continue.
“If we’re serious about reconciliation, we have to take action,” Helps said.
Ron Rice, the executive director of the Victoria Native Friendship Centre, told CTV News that removing the statue of Macdonald “is very symbolic.”
Federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, however, called the statue’s impending removal an example of “political correctness” being used to “erase history.”
“We can look to the past, acknowledge and learn from mistakes, and celebrate achievements at the same time,” Scheer said on Twitter.
Alberta Opposition Leader Jason Kenney also vociferously opposes the move, saying in a video posted on YouTube that it’s proof “political correctness has gone way too far” and an act of “historical vandalism.”
“John A. Macdonald was not a perfect man, but he was still a great man,” Kenney said.
“Macdonald’s audacity of vision is partly what made Confederation possible 150 years ago,” he added. “It required incredible patience and a bold vision ... We must honour his vision, his central role in the creation of what has become one of the greatest, freest and most prosperous countries.”
Kenney pointed out that Macdonald was ahead of his time in calling in 1885 for women to have the right to vote. That same year, Macdonald extended the right to vote to Indigenous people who met certain property conditions, an enfranchisement that Wilfrid Laurier took away in 1898. Indigenous people didn’t regain that right until 1960.
Kenney said that the residential school system was a “terrible injustice” but that “dark moments” of history must be seen in a broader context.
Victoria Coun. Ben Issit, a historian who missed the vote due to a law exam but supports the statue’s removal, said that a lack of context is part of the problem.
“If you go by (the statue), you don’t know anything about the residential schools,” he said.
“You don’t know anything about John A. Macdonald’s contributions in all the other areas of Canadian history,” he went on.
According to Issit, his constituents, “want us to actively pursue a process of de-colonization and removing this statue is a small first step.”
Not all constituents agree. Eric McWilliam told CTV Vancouver Island that the decision to remove the statue is an attempt “to erase our history and erase our culture," and he will attend a rally planned for Saturday to protest the move.
"I'm very proud of our culture, I'm very proud of the accomplishments of all Canadians including Scottish-Canadians like myself,” McWilliam said.
Victoria is not the only place where Indigenous people have called for the removal of Macdonald’s name or likeness.
Last year, an Ontario teachers' union demanded that Macdonald’s name be removed from schools where they teach. Kathleen Wynne, who was premier at the time, criticized the move.
In May, the Canadian Historical Association voted to strip Macdonald's name from one of its top writing prizes.
Lynda Kitchikeesic, an Indigenous rights activist with Ojibway heritage, said she hopes the erasure of Macdonald’s name continues, starting with the Macdonald Parkway in her home city of Ottawa.
“I have never used that name. I would never use that name,” she said.
“People always talk about, well they had good intentions,” she said of the figures behind the residential school system.
“I don’t care about your good intentions,” she went on. "Racism is racism. ... Just because you think it’s okay doesn’t make it okay – not today, not yesterday and not tomorrow.”
With a report from CTV National News B.C. Bureau Chief Melanie Nagy