Sir John A Macdonald statue beheaded – “Anybody may support me when I am right. What I want is a man that will support me when I am wrong.” The exchange between Sir John A Macdonald and then-Senator A.R. Dickey is cited in the book “Colombo’s Concise Canadian Quotations” by John Robert Colombo (Hurtig, 1976). The quote may be fitting after the violent removal of Sir John’s statue from its pedestal at Place du Canada by a group of demonstrators this past Saturday. Was this man right or wrong? Of course, the actions of a person, especially in politics, are far too complex to be reduced to a black-or-white statement.
The statue honouring Macdonald had already been targeted on at least two occasions. This time, however, the action was more drastic on the sculpture, and in its fall it also suffered a humiliating decapitation. Reactions to the act came soon, Mayor Valerie Plante called it ‘vandalism’ both the Prime Minister and the Quebec Premier also condemned the action. They pointed at repairing and restoring the monument in its place. This, however, seems complicated at this time, since it would almost require 24-hour surveillance of the site. Others, like Dinu Bumbaru, from Heritage Montreal, proposed an “educated public discussion.” At the same time, Jessica Quijano, a coordinator at the Native Women’s Shelter, pointed at a petition some time ago, in which around forty-thousand signatories would have demanded the statue’s removal.
Could this direct action be considered a sort of revolutionary act? A vindication of those indigenous people who suffered as a result of Sir John’s action when governing in the 19th century? An example of people’s justice? Or is it just childish vandalism? The issue is complex to define. I would certainly dismiss any attempt to call it “revolutionary.” In fact, given the participants—mostly young middle-class guys—beheading Sir John’s statue could have had a very different inspiration. I am thinking of a similar act performed on the monument to the founder of Springfield, by Jimbo and Dolph, two of the best-known bullies in The Simpsons series. Not precisely any action resembling the assault on the Bastille or on the Winter Palace.
Those who defaced the statue of one of Canada’s founding fathers based their action on the fact that while he was the country’s first Prime Minister, the infamous system of residential schools for children of indigenous people was implemented. His policies toward the indigenous communities in the west, and especially the fact that during his government the Métis leader Louis Riel was hanged, are dark stains that official history has not always exposed. At the same time, however, the man was undoubtedly a pivotal figure in the political process that led, first to the formation of Canada in 1867 and then, to the reassertion of this nation as a sovereign state. The building of a trans-Canada railway line was essential to this goal as well. His strong resistance at continental economic policies that would have resulted in Canada being absorbed by the United States was one of his most significant achievements.
How to balance all these contradictory aspects? A complicated matter indeed, something that would require a long process of analysis and reflection. And I hope to have this conversation, leading to a decision on the future of the statue. In that case, it should also be a democratic process. No group of demonstrators, no matter how just their demands may sound, can claim for themselves the right to decide who should be honoured by statues and who shouldn’t.
Unfortunately, that type of reflection, as requested by many people, seems difficult to take place now, when tensions are high. According to a report on the CBC website, “Catherine Cadotte, a spokesperson for Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, said Monday the city would take ‘some time to reflect on the future of this statue’ and consult with ‘partners and experts.’” However, what is needed is a broader discussion, a public consultation open to all Montrealers, not only with the “partners and experts,” as defined by some city bureaucrats.
Feature image: Beheaded and fallen on the ground: the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald was vandalized according to the Mayor. “Justice was done on a man ultimately responsible for residential schools,” said demonstrators.