By: C Icart, Staff Writer
Content warning: Mentions of racism, colonialism, and violence against Indigenous peoples
“The executions of the Indians . . . ought to convince the Red Man that the White Man governs,” — Sir John A. Macdonald
“A Chinaman gives us his labour and gets his money, but that money does not fructify in Canada; he does not invest it here, but takes it with him and returns to China . . . he has no British instincts or British feelings or aspirations, and therefore ought not to have a vote.” — Sir John A. Macdonald
January 11 was Sir John A. Macdonald day. He was “the first Prime Minister of Canada and one of the architects of the Confederation.” He is an important figure that played a key role in some of the worst parts of Canadian history. So, why is there a day to commemorate him? Or statues that glorify him?
People have been defacing his statues for decades, and many are calling for them to be removed. This has been done in municipalities like Charlottetown, Kingston, Regina, and Victoria. In other cases, a different strategy has been adopted to deal with historical sites related to Sir John A. Macdonald. In Kingston, the Bellevue House where he lived with his family is currently looking to include Indigenous art to the attraction as a way to incorporate different perspectives on his “complex legacy.”
He’s not the only one though. The passing of Queen Elizabeth II has caused many Canadians to rethink their ties to the monarchy. In fact, over half of the population “would support severing our ties with a monarchy.” In Quebec, 79% of people are in support. The sentiment is so strong that the province “has passed a law making an oath of allegiance to the monarch optional for members of the legislature.”
In Kitchener, Ontario, a statue of Queen Victoria has a plaque in front of it acknowledging the colonial harm that the statue is continuing to cause in 2021. This has not stopped activists from vandalizing it with red paint multiple times in 2022. Amy Smoke, co-founder of Land Back Camp has said, “We’re idolizing these colonial figures that built this country off of the backs and blood of Indigenous people and Black folks as well.” They are calling for the statue to be removed and for the park it is in (Victoria Park) to also be renamed.
In Edmonton, many are rethinking the fact that so many things are named after Frank Oliver, Alberta’s first member of parliament, guilty of “pushing First Nations like Papaschase off their lands, and lobbying to keep African Americans out of Canada.” In 2021, a statue of Egerton Ryerson — “an architect of Canada’s residential school system” — was covered in red paint, beheaded, and put into a lake. Since, the university that it was once displayed on has been renamed as well.
What is even more absurd is that in some cases, the statues, schools, and other signage commemorating these figures are relatively recent. Last year, people marched in protest of the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway and called for it to be renamed. Up until 2012, that parkway was named the Ottawa River Parkway. The National Capital Commission announced that changing the signs cost $60,000.
At the same time, “54% of Canadians believe the removal of statues of colonial figures is an attack on Canadian history.” It’s not. Refusing to commemorate colonial figures is not the same as forgetting. The same way that commemorating them is not the same as learning about their legacy.
Even this year, the Government of Canada encourages Canadians to celebrate Sir John A. Macdonald and claims that “teachers and youth leaders often use this day as an opportunity to teach young people about our first Prime Minister and the founding of our country.” This implies that even today at a time of so-called truth and reconciliation, students are being taught to think positively about Sir John A. Macdonald’s legacy. This is not surprising because public schools have played a huge role in teaching students to support settler colonialism. We must decolonize education.
Anishinaabe artist Scott Benesiinaabandan argues that colonial monuments have a harmful impact as they normalize colonial violence. To combat this, he created monumentalisms, an art installation that includes “3D-printed sculptures, digital prints, and a virtual-reality installation using more than 600 photographs of three monument sites” to represent the reality that is either hidden or imposed by these monuments.
Commemorating these figures through monuments and official days is often an act of rewriting who they were. When the government calls for us to celebrate Sir John A. Macdonald — Which part are they referring to? When he “created the Indian Act and Indian Residential Schools”? When he “had Métis leader Louis Riel executed for treason despite objections from French Canadians”?
Those who are opposed to these renaming projects often claim that those in favour are “politically correct historical revisionists.” But as Brenda Macdougall — Chair of Métis Research at the University of Ottawa — so eloquently puts it, “Canada is one long renaming project. Every location in this country had an Indigenous name in an Indigenous language, and colonial authorities, deeming those names irrelevant, renamed them in their own language and [ . . . . ] bastardized the original names in a manner that obliterated the Indigenous perspectives and sense of place.” Renaming streets and schools and taking down statues does not erase anyone’s colonial legacy. If it did, we’d be doing it faster.
Decolonization in so-called Canada is not just about adding days like the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. We cannot unpack and oppose colonialism on one day and celebrate colonizers on other days. That doesn’t make any sense and it calls into question how sincere the Canadian government is when it comes to reconciliation.
Despite what is written on the official calendars, January 11 was not Sir John A. Macdonald Day. It was just another Wednesday where the government failed to make any progress on the “94 calls to action outlined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” putting the country on pace to only meet all of them in 2065. Maybe they could speed it up if they spent less time commemorating colonial figures.