Hero or villain? Canada struggles with monuments to controversial history
In Place du Canada, the statue of John A. Macdonald looms large.
To some, the visage of Canada’s first prime minister represents the birth of their country. To others, the landmark is a tribute to a man who was responsible for Canada’s tragic history of residential schools.
Much like the United States, where monuments commemorating Confederate figures who fought on the losing side of the civil war have drawn fire, Canada also has a past that’s being reconsidered and rethought. And like the US, there are plenty of reminders of that history in the form of statues, plaques and monuments spread around.
“All Canadian history, all major figures in Canadian history are controversial,” said University of Ottawa history professor Pierre Anctil. “There’s no place you’re safe.”
Anctil pointed out that many historic figures had views that would be considered offensive in more modern times. Debate now rages over which public tributes to that past should remain and which should be removed.
Earlier this month, Montreal’s executive committee voted to rename a street and park named after Nobel Prize-winning doctor Alexis Carrel due to his alleged Nazi ties and pro-eugenics stance.
Also in August, a plaque outside downtown’s Hudson’s Bay Company store honouring Confederate president Jefferson Davis was removed.
Anctil said that while some relics deserve to be removed, others should remain.
“They lead us to reflections, to a critical understanding of our past,” he said. “They’re occasions to think, to reflect, to bring critical reasoning.”
The MacDonald statue isn’t alone in being criticized. On top of the tall column in Place Jacques Cartier is a statue of Adm. Horatio Nelson, a military hero to some and a symbol of colonial oppression to others.
The original statue of Nelson, built in 1809, is now housed in the Centre d’Histoire de Montreal.
“The first years, people were coming and saying, ‘No, you are not honoring that hero of British empire and colonial empire,’” said centre director Jean-Francois Leclerc. “Many have tried and failed to remove this statue of Nelson.”
As a response to that statue, the St. Jean Baptiste Society erected a statue of their own in 1930 right across the street, this one a tribute to French naval hero Jean Vaucquelin.
That kind of equal representation could be a good solution to the problem of a complex history, where one person’s hero is another’s villain.
“Maybe there is a way to say something else about the message of the monuments we don’t like,” said Leclerc.