Statues, memorials, and the Canadian identity controversy

The statue of John A. Macdonald in downtown Charlottetown (Shane Ross/CBC)

There’s been a lot of controversy over the last few years on historical memory in Canada. Canada 150 was met with opposition like the @resistance150 Twitter account and Indigenous protests on Parliament Hill. There were protests and vandalism of statues of historical figures like John A. Macdonald and Edward Cornwallis. Macdonald’s statue in Victoria and Cornwallis’s statue in Halifax both taken down. The removals also met with backlash from critics who accused the people advocating for the removals of wanting to erase Canada’s history.

In April 2017, Christopher Dummitt wrote on the website about the opposition he experienced from colleagues opposed to his proposal to discuss different aspects of Canada. Dummitt said his fellow scholars didn’t want to ‘legitimate the Canadian project and the idea of Canada.’ He noted that most of the Canadian public still wanted to feel a positive connection to Canada even while acknowledging the darker parts of its history. Dummitt further accused his colleagues of wanting to ‘indoctrinate’ the public on why Canada is supposedly bad. Disagreement with their agenda was considered ignorance-or worse.

Dummitt may have overstated his case by using the term ‘indoctrination’. Even so, he highlighted something almost as problematic in some activist circles. Namely, the fact that some critics come across as saying that feeling a positive connection to Canada is a bad thing and anyone who does is a bad person. Colonialism No More activist Robin Pitawanakwat noted that many settler Canadians thought that the Indigenous activists protesting on Canada Day were trying to tell them they were bad people for wanting to celebrate Canada Day, although that wasn’t the case.

In relation to statues of figures like Macdonald, historian James Daschuk succinctly noted that settler Canadians oppose removing his statues because they feel it punishes their identity. Ojibwa senator and residential school survivor Murray Sinclair talks about how the removal of statues often comes across as revenge or anger, a point echoed by the chiefs of the Mi’kmaq Confederacy of Prince Edward Island.

The lack of a positive historical identity leaves the door open to a more extreme interpretation of it. Is it really wise to leave that kind of ground open to the alt-right white nationalists?

This all contributes to the divide between some activists and historians on the one hand, and the more general Canadian public on the other. In this context, someone like Macdonald is almost a sort of ancestor figure to settler Canadians, which heavily informs their sense of who they are. The removal of the statues comes across as a personal attack on them, a feeling only reinforced by the attitudes of some of Dummitt’s colleagues, not to mention the activists who vandalize these memorials. Settler Canadians might also wonder whether they can even disagree with the activists without being attacked as racists.

Unfortunately, statues don’t just commemorate ancestor figures. Jewel Spangler wrote on Active History about how Confederate statues were often used as symbols of domination over African-Americans. Today, white nationalist movements are using the controversies over Confederate statues to position themselves as defenders of American heritage.

Similarly, in Canada the statues of figures like Macdonald and Cornwallis can become symbols of the bigotry, abuse that Indigenous people and other communities face not just historically but today. It’s only now, after decades of writings, reports, royal commissions and other work that the larger Canadian public is aware of all the bullshit many minorities deal with in our country. Their perspectives continue to be ignored and repressed in many cases.

Is there a way around this? Can settler Canadians feel a positive connection to their identity, history and ancestor figures, or does it all have to be rejected? Are Indigenous people and other people of colour expected to simply have their perspectives ignored and told they don’t matter?

The danger here isn’t just to Indigenous reconciliation, but other issues in Canada too. As Dummitt pointed out, the larger Canadian public probably won’t be open to the points academic historians and activists are trying to make if they feel they’re not allowed to take pride in their heritages. Worse, as Garnett Genuis pointed out, the lack of a positive historical identity leaves the door open to a more extreme interpretation of it. Is it really wise to leave that kind of ground open to the alt-right white nationalists?

Showing the dark side of our history, and using it as a motivation to do better than our predecessors did, can strengthen Canada for all of us.

The debate also overlooks the fact that the legacies even of Canadian prime ministers aren’t as cut and dried as they might seem. William Lyon Mackenzie King was noted for his disgusting anti-Semitism and racism against everyone from Japanese Canadians to Indigenous people. Yet Matthew Neufeld wrote that King’s immigration policies still saved the lives of three of his grandparents. Should King’s policies be judged as good or bad because of that?

Similarly, Metis historian Olive Dickason[i] quoted Macdonald’s justifying extending the federal vote to Indigenous men by saying that “they carry on the whole system in their own way, but it is in the Indian way, and it is an efficient way. They carry out all the obligations of civilized men…in every respect they have a right to be considered as equal with the whites.” Dickason also quoted the Liberals as saying that “it is a derogation to the dignity of the people and an insult to free white people in the country to place them on a level with pagan and barbarian Indians” to justify repealing Macdonald’s changes in 1898.

Fortunately, there might be a way forward, one endorsed by many Indigenous people themselves. Gitxsan activist Cindy Blackstock thinks that most statues and other memorials should remain in place to show people both the positive and ugly sides of historical figures’ legacies. Recently, Blackstock and Mohawk activist Ellen Gabriel participated in adding a new plaque to the gravesite of Duncan Campbell Scott, the Indian Affairs director who oversaw many of the most repressive parts of the Indigenous reserve and residential school systems. Gabriel talked about ‘humanizing’ Scott rather than ‘demonizing’ him, adding that Scott’s failings are those that humans in general are all too often guilty of. It’s a way to leave behind shame and guilt, and to take corrective actions.

Other Indigenous commentators such as the Native Council of Prince Edward Island, Sto:lo writer Lee Maracle, Sioux-Cree Kingston resident Dakota Ward, Mohawk teacher and activist Michael Rice and Anishinaabe comedian Ryan McMahon agree that statues and similar memorials can function as teaching tools. Senator Sinclair also wrote about the need to build up Indigenous successes and accomplishments, a point the Native Council agreed with.

A (perhaps unintentional) example of the Indigenous perspective can be found in the statue of the Blackfoot leader Crowfoot at the Alberta Legislature. His comment that he was the first to sign Treaty 7, but that he would be the last to break it, would be all too prescient. That’s the sort of thing that can be further built on to show settler Canadians the Indigenous perspective.

In a speech outlining his vision for the future of Canada’s First Nations, Robert Jago spoke about settlers supporting Indigenous rights because they want to look at Canada’s national institutions and take pride in them. They want to see their flag and their anthem as good things. Jago added that even many of the protestors who set up the tipi on Parliament Hill on Canada 150 held out hope for this too.

In the end, the way to break the impasse over the statue debate may be to separate the idea of educating settler Canadians on history from the idea of tearing down Canada itself. The onus for this should not be on Indigenous people who already have more than enough to deal with-although they can certainly weigh in if they want to-but rather on their settler allies and supporters.

Showing the dark side of our history, and using it as a motivation to do better than our predecessors did, can strengthen Canada for all of us. Memorials like statues can act as teaching tools as much as commemorations. This would break the impasse Dummitt identified between academic historians and the public and undermine the alt-right’s attempt to present itself as a defender of history while still addressing so many of the problems that Indigenous people and other minorities still have to deal with.

Most of all, though, it would give us more reason to feel the pride Jago alluded to, the pride in the institutions we so cherish.

[i] Olive Dickason and David McNabb’s Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples From Earliest Times. Oxford University Press, 2009. Pages 256–257.

Passionately devoted to Canadian unity. Fascinated by Canadian politics and history. Striving to understand the mysteries of Canada.