As statues topple around the world, thousands of Montrealers want Sir John A. Macdonald to be next
MONTREAL -- As statues of colonial figureheads begin to topple around the world in the wake of anti-racism protests, some want Montreal to be next.
More specifically, after years of simmering protests, they want to see an end to the monument to Sir John A. Macdonald that stands at Place du Canada, near Bonaventure metro.
“We have to remember that even in these moments when people were seen in the mainstream as heroes, there were Indigenous, Black and white people who said they are not heroes,” says Charmaine Nelson, a McGill University art historian.
On Sunday, people in the U.K. city of Bristol pulled down a statue of a 17th-century slave trader and threw it in the river.
Today, it was reported that people in Richmond, Virginia and St. Paul, Minnesota toppled statues of Christopher Columbus—with the one in Virginia also set on fire and thrown in a lake—while in Boston, another Columbus statue was beheaded.
Montreal’s Sir John A. statue has been vandalized many times by protesters, including last Halloween, when self-described “anti-colonial zombies” covered much of it in red spray paint.
But this week, the local protesters are sticking with a petition for now, though its writer says it’s just the beginning.
“There are many monuments of racist white nationalists in Montréal—and one by one they will ALL see their fate,” the petition says.
Launched four days ago by a woman listed as Isobel Walker, the petition has gathered more than 10,000 signatures.
It asks Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante and city council to remove the bronze monument, which consists of a tall pedestal with columns enclosing a statue.
Sir John A. Macdonald was one of the fathers of Canadian confederation and the country’s first prime minister.
Some of Macdonald's “lifelong projects,” the petition-writer said, included “establishing the first residential school and creating the system in which over 130 more could be made” and “openly promoting the preservation of a so-called ‘Aryan’ Canada.”
He was behind various pieces of legislation meant to exclude non-white people, including the 1885 Electoral Franchise Act, which explicitly denied the vote to ethnically Chinese people, the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Chinese Head Tax.
A Guelph University political scientist says Macdonald was directly responsible for atrocities.
He used “starvation tactics” to kill large numbers of Plains Indigenous people, professor David MacDonald (no relation to Sir John A. Macdonald) told CTV News.
“There shouldn’t be bridges and schools and all sorts of things named after someone who so blantantly went out to destroy Indigenous nations in this country.”
Nakuset, the director of Montreal’s Native Women’s Shelter, agrees.
“He was very proactive in the starvation of Indigenous people,” she said. “So why would we want a statue of him?”
Charmaine Nelson, the McGill art historian, is quoted in the petition about another troubling aspect of many colonial-era statues.
They “are being strategically used by white supremacists as talismen in their tactics of racial hatred,” she has written.
Today, Nelson said that while she doesn’t want the statue on display, she, and many people, do want its lessons to be learned—it’s just unclear how to use the statue to do that.
“To me, those monuments should be taken down from public, where there is no context [for viewers], but what should we do with them?” she asked. “Take them to a place where they can be seen in context, like a museum?”
Despite the renewed calls for action on the statue, Mayor Plante says the city has no imminent plans to remove it.
“I don’t have immediate plans,” she said Wednesday. “I think right now we are getting a lot of feedback and ideas on how to address systemic discrimination... and so I think it’s important to hear all that, but I don’t wnt to make a quick decision before hearing all the options.”
Other historical monuments and names are coming under attack this week elsewhere in Canada.
In Montreal, James McGill will likely be another target, said MacDonald.
Former prime minister Wilfrid Laurier could be another, as he had a role to play in residential schools, he said.
In Toronto, a petition is calling for the major artery of Dundas Street to be renamed—it was named after Henry Dundas, an 18th-century Scottish politician who worked for years to obstruct the ending of slavery in the British Empire.
A statue of Dundas was covered in graffiti in Edinburgh, Scotland this week.
“I think a lot of our leaders from the past are going to be rescrutinized in light of ‘What are the priorities of our generations going forward?’” said MacDonald. “And that’s as it should be.”
“If you’re surrounded by statues of these people—if your kids are on the Dundas subway, going to McGill University, crossing the Macdonald Bridge... they’re interacting with them on a daily basis.”
The monuments are a “constant reminder that these people are still with us and still being honoured,” he says.
As for what to do with them, if the petitioners get their wish, he says it shouldn’t be hard.
“We can put all the statues somewhere, and people that really like them can go look at them, perhaps,” he suggested.
“It’ll be a park of, I don’t know, architects for the residential schools or something, if people really want that to happen.”