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Statues under attack – Has the time come for a reckoning?

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Statues under attack – The wave of strong reactions to the killing of George Floyd in the United States has had an unexpected target: statues. The removal of public monuments honouring military and civilians leaders of the Confederacy has been swift. In most cases, it took place in an atmosphere where anger and celebration combined.  As the indictment of racism extended to the condemnation of slavery and colonialism throughout the world, so the bronze or marble representations of individuals engaged in or even remotely associated with those regrettable practices became targets too. Protesters in Britain decided to throw the statue of Edward Colston—a man who in the 17th century made his fortune in the slave trade—into a nearby harbour. In London, the statue of Winston Churchill got a graffiti calling him a racist. Even Thomas Jefferson, one of the American Founding Fathers, who happened to be a slave owner, has had some of his monuments unceremoniously removed.

Statues under attack – Sir John A. Macdonald statue in Montreal: Will and should his statue be removed?

From slavery and racism, the logical next step was to condemn colonialism since, in particular in the New World, it led to the human trade of Africans and the displacement of indigenous people from their land. Statues of Christopher Columbus and Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon became targets.  As sometimes people get carried away, in San Francisco, some demonstrators defaced a bust of Miguel de Cervantes.  Of course, he had nothing to do with colonialism (the episode, anyhow, says a lot about the sorry state of education in some parts of the world. It would be as if anticolonial protesters target a statue of William Shakespeare—ignorance is sometimes present among supporters of the best causes).

Canada has not been exempt from questioning historical figures presiding over some public parks. Are they worth that homage? In Montreal, in particular, the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald erected in Place du Canada has already been the target of a few attacks. Now, a few voices and some petitions circulating on the social networks are demanding their removal. So far, Mayor Valerie Plante has rejected the idea. Still, you never know with her, since she tends to see which way the wind is blowing before making a decision.

Statues under attack – The statue of James McGill is an unusually playful, beautiful sculpture. However, James McGill was an owner of slaves.

Another target in the city has been the monument honouring James McGill.  Located at the right side of the main entrance of McGill University entrance on Sherbrooke St. McGill is targeted because he is accused of having owned slaves. Unlike the maligned Colston in Britain, however, McGill didn’t make his fortune in the slave trade. 

Emma Soames, Churchill’s granddaughter, while lamenting what happened to the monument to his controversial ancestor admitted that “he had some views that would not be acceptable today,” that about the many occasions on which Churchill voiced the alleged superiority of the white race. She also said that “people don’t look at all people’s backgrounds before putting them on statues, if they did, this would be a country of empty plinths.” Maybe, but the fact is that all over the world, countries honour individuals regarded as important to their history. Most likely they were not “saints”, and all might have had some dark side. And for whether their bronze personifications should be removed or stay put, probably the wisest thing is to solve the situation on a case-by-case basis. For instance, in our city, the merits of Macdonald, the first prime minister and one of the fathers of Confederation, should also be contrasted with the fact that under his government—not necessarily for his own initiative—the notorious residential school system for indigenous children was introduced. The same for the McGill statue on the University campus (by the way, a beautiful, unusually playful sculpture by David Roper-Curzon). Perhaps in both cases, and as a compromise given their significance, while the monuments should stay, next to them a plaque stating contextualized biographical information should be placed as well. After all, at least in Montreal, the two statues in question also happen to be beautiful expressions of public art worth preserving.

By: Sergio Martinez – info@mtltimes.ca

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