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Opinion: Ditch the permanent! Temporary art projects could replace where John A. Macdonald's statue stood


It is now over two years since the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald was toppled from its monument in Place du Canada in downtown Montreal, taken down -- in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd -- as part of a global movement against the public celebration of racist figures from the past.

Since its fall, the statue has been housed in a warehouse while the City of Montreal determines its future and that of the elaborate monument that still remains.

Some clues as to what that future might hold have now been revealed with the tabling of a preliminary report from an ad hoc committee appointed by the city and composed largely of independent experts.

The committee is to be congratulated for unambiguously recommending that Macdonald not be returned to his perch, recognizing that the time has passed for celebrating an individual associated with such genocidal actions as the creation of Indian residential schools.

Macdonald statues have already been removed in Victoria, Regina, Charlottetown, and Kingston. In that context, the proposal by the ad hoc committee, if accepted, would put Montreal on the right side of history.

In a sense, however, keeping Macdonald in storage is the easy part; more complicated is the question of what comes next, and on this score, the committee's report lacks a certain imagination.

The committee has suggested that the city should employ a variety of tools, including the use of digital techniques, the installation of a plaque providing a full accounting of Macdonald's legacy, and the staging of annual commemorative events in honour of those who suffered from his actions.

But the most visible and most expensive item on the committee's list is the creation of a new piece of public art either on the pedestal where Macdonald once stood or in the vicinity of the monument, what the committee calls "a physical marker ... that would guarantee the permanence of a new interpretation" of Macdonald's legacy.

In other words, we would be replacing one piece of permanent public art with another, but why?

Across the world, the landscape is cluttered with permanent structures, suggesting that what we know about the past is fixed and unchanging, but the Macdonald monument speaks precisely to what happens when new perspectives and new information (such as the unearthing of the remains of children who died at residential schools) emerge, leaving behind structures that are no longer appropriate.

There is, however, an alternative model available that would allow repurposing of the monument in a less permanent way.

This model can be found in London's Trafalgar Square, where four plinths were erected in the 19th century, pedestals designed to hold statues celebrating a glorious imperial past. While three of the plinths were populated, the fourth remained empty when funds ran out, that is, until 1998, when it became the site for an ongoing series of temporary public art projects.

The Fourth Plinth has been a huge success, attracting visitors from all over the world to view the rotating artworks.

Montreal has an opportunity to adopt the same concept in regard to the space left behind by Macdonald's statue. With the communities affected by Macdonald's policies taking the lead, artists could develop temporary projects inspired by aspects of Macdonald's legacy.

This would be an opportunity to repurpose the space where Macdonald's statue once stood, amplifying the voices of racialized communities that bore the brunt of his actions.

Because these would be temporary installations, they would not incur the same expenses connected with a permanent project.

At the same time, such a program could usefully move us beyond the 19th-century notion that public representation of the past needs to be chiselled in stone or cast in bronze, in the process allowing voices often excluded from public space to be heard.

We have an opportunity to do something important and original here if only we use our imaginations. 

Ronald Rudin, writes and makes films about how we publicly commemorate the past, and is a distinguished professor emeritus in the Department of History at Concordia University. Top Stories

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