Should We Tear Down Statues?

Should We Tear Down Statues? August 20, 2018 · 16 min. readThis article may contain affiliate links.

About a year and a half ago I visited Kyiv, Ukraine. As I walked down the millennium old streets and gawked at the towering cathedrals, I saw the beginnings of a new country, one that was slowly rebuilding from a much darker time. The process of what I was seeing had a name. It was called decommunization.

Decommunization is the process of removing all symbols of Communism from countries once under Soviet control. This is happening in Germany, Slovakia, Ukraine, Belarus and even in places like Kazakhstan, where the capital city was moved and rebuilt.

Decommunization includes renaming architecture, changing laws and protocols, and even tearing down monuments. People's Friendship Arch in Kyiv, for example, which symbolised the friendship between the Communist East and the Capitalist West, was torn down. Some statues, like war memorials, are exempt, but there is still talk of making modifications to them. Anywhere you go throughout the former Soviet Union, the hammer and sickle are being removed – not from history, but from modern society.

Lennin, I think. I got this wrong last time. People's Friendship Arch in Kyiv Tshirt with hammer and sickle being removed

This is an important distinction. These countries have had a cognitive shift. Once the Iron Curtain fell, these countries had a choice: they could either move forward as new independent countries or try to hold onto their conformant past. Collectively, they moved forward and forge their own destiny. For something as large as decommunization to occur, the culture of the society needed to change first, and the former Soviet states were already more than ready.

We can use the concept of decommunization and apply it to Canada and our dynamic cultural shift. As a society we are coming to terms with the atrocities of the Indian Residential Schools program and the Sixty's Scoop. These events have been brushed off for decades and are now are finally being recognised and acknowledged. But, with that recognition comes change, and change often leads to conflict.

The most difficult thing about change is the education needed to make it possible. We need to acknowledge that the acts committed by the government towards the Indigenous peoples not only occurred a century ago but continued until recently. There are people in my life who have memories of going to these schools, who have had their language and culture ripped from them, and who are still struggling today.

While the decision to make this happen occurred in the 19th Century, they caused 21st Century problems.

Upon seeing the impacts of the Indian Residential Schools program – both via the Regina Indian Industrial School Cemetery and by those who lived through the schools – I feel it is our responsibility to help heal these wounds.

Regina Indian Industrial School Cemetery

I may have had nothing to do with the schools being built, and I never hurt the children. My parents, my grandparents, or my great-grandparents are also innocent of this. But, as a society, we caused this to happen. Our own ignorance and intolerance led to the schools being built, and the children's lives being destroyed. Because of this, as a society, we must move forward and heal together.

But, does this mean we should tear down statues? Does this mean we need to go through a "De-Canadization" period? Does this mean we need to rewrite history books, change curriculums, and erase our past?

No, not quite.

The major difference between Soviet Russia and Canada is that Canada embraces diversity, equality and creativity. We thrive on different opinions and different ideas. We vote for, and criticise, our leader as a collective voice. We work independently, but together for a better tomorrow for all people.

But we cannot forget our past. We cannot move forward as a society with an ever-increasing guilt on our back. We need to turn around, address the issues and move forward together.

This also means addressing our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald.

Creation of statue of Sir John A. MacDonald Current picture of statue of Sir John A. MacDonald

As with all things politics, there are two sides to John A. MacDonald. Some see him as a dictatorial figure who crushed his opponent in office and on the battlefield. Yet, others see him as a gentle husband who moved his law office to his sick wife's bedside.

Bellevue House Bellevue House

It is easy to generalise somebody like John A. MacDonald. He was a polarising figure in Canadian history. He did great things for this country, from establishing the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to extending the country across Rupert's Land to British Columbia and building the railway. But, he did horrible things to this country too, like the Indian Residential School program and the invoking of the Chinese Head-Tax. In fact, John A. MacDonald is the only Prime Minister in Canadian history to order the military to attack citizens of his own country. There are still bullet holes in the structures of Batoche, Saskatchewan from the battle, and these bullets were fired under MacDonald's command.

The Indigenous People of Canada never forgot this, and neither should we. The events around the Northwest Rebellion has its own Cree name: "ē-mēyihkamikahk" which means "when it went wrong". This term doesn't mean relations were anywhere close to positive before the rebellion in 1885, but following it, things took a much darker turn.

Some people argue that John A. MacDonald was nothing more than a victim of the times. He shouldn't be criticised for what he did towards the Indigenous people, because other revered individuals like Abraham Lincoln and Tommy Douglas also have their own dark history. Abraham Lincoln once held slaves and said blacks would never have the same rights as whites. He said they would never be voters, or jurors or equals in any sense of the word. Tommy Douglas was also an advocate for eugenics, saying in his thesis: "Thus sterilization would deprive them of nothing that they value very highly, and would make it impossible for them to reproduce those whose presence could contribute little to the general well-being of society."

The difference between John A. MacDonald, Abraham Lincoln and Tommy Douglas is the literary difference between a static and a dynamic character. Five years after saying blacks would never be equals, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation declaring black men free. A decade after writing his thesis on eugenics, Tommy Douglas realised the err of his ways and developed one of the finest healthcare programs in the world.

John A. MacDonald never changed his status on Indigenous people. He copied the belief system of the United States and applied it to the colonialism ideals of the British Empire. To him, Canada was an extension of Great Britain, so much so that his election poster in 1891 used the terms "The Old Flag. The Old Policy. The Old Leader". He was, politically, a static leader. He had one policy, and that was making Canada the best it could be, regardless of who stood in his way.

The Old Flag. The Old Policy. The Old Leader

It was this policy that cost him his position, alienated French Canada, and caused ē-mēyihkamikahk. It was his policy, and his conflicts with Louis Riel, that changed the country forever.

Louis Riel is John A. MacDonald's opposite. He was Metis – a mix of Aboriginal and French heritage – and was a devote Catholic. He was the yin to MacDonald Anglo-Saxon's yang. Their policies collided, and they sparked two conflicts on our soil. When Riel was captured in battle, MacDonald ordered his execution, even though many Quebecois and Queen Victoria requested Riel be freed. Instead, MacDonald responded "[Riel] shall hang though every dog in Quebec bark in his favour."

Riel is considered the Father of Manitoba and could arguable be considered the Father of Saskatchewan too. But, there are no statues of Louis Riel in the Queen City. Instead, the two statues of him that stood were both taken down. There is even no marker at the RCMP Depot to signify where he was executed. All the evidence of him ever existing in the city is a plaque downtown in Victoria Park and a small sign on Cornwall Street. While there is an annual play that re-enacts the trial, there is no statue, monument, street or park named after him. There is also no exhibit in either the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, nor in the Civic Museum of Regina.

Old statues of Louis Riel in Regina Plaque of Louis Riel

Why is there a visible legacy of Prime Minister John A. MacDonald, but not one of Louis Riel? Both had their impacts on this city, and both are important to the creation of Saskatchewan. There is not one without the other. Winnipeg has several statues of him. Where are Regina's?

Louis Riel in Winnipeg Louis Riel in Winnipeg Louis Riel in Winnipeg

To return to my original question, should we tear down statues, my answer is no. Not yet, anyway. For something like decommunization to occur, we need to have a complete shift in consciousness first. We must determine the past was so negative that there are zero positive absolutes stemming from it, or at least until the negatives outweigh the positives.

Unlike Ukraine's dark place behind the Iron Curtain, not all was dark behind MacDonald's flag. Today we have one of the finest countries in the world, with one of the most diverse cultural mixing pots in human history. Our country is vast and beautiful, and our people work tirelessly for a better tomorrow. John A. MacDonald has a place in making that all possible, even if he went about it the wrong way.

The decision by City Council in Victoria, British Columbia to take down the statue of John A. MacDonald seems controversial to some. By erasing history, we are only repeating history. However, Victoria's City Council is not destroying the statue – they are simply moving it somewhere more appropriate. Where that is, they haven't said, but the statue will remain accessible by the public.

I believe this type of creative healing is the best way for Canada to move forward with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada policies. Instead of tearing down statues, let's add to them. Let us make them conversation pieces. Let's make them icons of discussions. Let's make them vehicles of change.

I have two solutions to what to do with the statue of John A. MacDonald in Victoria Park, neither of which involve tearing it down.

Sir John A. MacDonald Statue

The first is to add an additional statue of Louis Riel standing directly across from MacDonald. We cannot talk about healing if only one side of the story is represented. Let's make this into a two-sided discussion. We have had two failed statues of Louis Riel in the city. Let's do it right this time.

My other solution is to surround the statue of John A. MacDonald with statues of Indigenous children. These are to represent the lives his policies damaged, and these are the people who must live with his decisions. In this solution, I say we encircle the prime minister with these statues but leave one space empty – for the many that disappeared.

These additions to his statue will change the context of it. No longer is it about Sir John. A MacDonald, but about his legacy, and the other side of the story. These additions open doorways for discussions, not close doors.

But, I am not Indigenous. I cannot say what the proper way to heal might be. All I can say is that I prefer unity and creation over division and destruction, and I feel that together, we can have the discussions needed for a better tomorrow.

Saying that, I'm not against tearing down the statue either. I believe, one day, that statue should come down. One day John A. MacDonald's legacy will be aged and obsolete. One day, ē-mēyihkamikahk will be reversed and we will be in a better place.

But, I do not believe that day is today.

I believe that taking down a statue should never be considered a bad thing. It should be considered the end of an era, the end of a reign, and the beginning of something new. It should be considered something that's long overdue, not something premature. Taking down a statue today means nothing, but tomorrow it might mean everything.

Grave of Louis Riel

Don't forget to pin it!

Should We Tear Down Statues? Should We Tear Down Statues?

And, as always, a big thank you to my sweetheart Jessica Nuttall for proof reading a countless number of my articles. I couldn't do any of this without you. I love you.

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