Macdonald, Laurier, McGill, Ryerson. These names are emblazoned on our currency and bestowed upon our finest institutions. Statues in their likeness stand in public spaces across the country. They have all helped shape the very foundations and politics of Canadian society. I was taught about their importance in grade school, along with the unquestionable importance of national pride.
But it requires a deeper dive into Canadian history to understand how this country was colonized through bloodshed and atrocity, by the administration of racist laws and treaties written in bad faith — broken before the ink could dry. Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, oversaw the construction of the national railway in the 1880s and starved Indigenous people on the plains to move the project forward. Along with Egerton Ryerson, Macdonald was one of the architects of the residential school system, and Sir Wilfrid Laurier greatly expanded it as prime minister. James McGill owned Black and Indigenous slaves. You’ll recognize some of these names as universities.
Maybe that’s part of the reason why I have never felt a part of the Canadian fabric. I have felt a social dysfunction and systematic brokenness for as long as I have been able to assess the world I live in. I believe that this country was stolen from my ancestors and built by Black slaves and other exploited workers. Canada exists as it does at the expense of the forgotten lives chewed up and spit into unmarked graves. This history is whitewashed to better reflect the self-flattering half-lies I was taught about its founders.
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I want to believe in truth and reconciliation. I want to think that the time to change the course of history is upon us. I want to hope for better things, and this hope involves addressing the great white fantasy of Canada. The notion that these statues (and institutional names) should remain either as they are or with a contextualized plaque is lazy. Their presence is an obfuscation that reinforces the undemocratic idea that national pride should come from structural injustice, racism and systemic violence.
The reluctance to confront historical wrongs is not lost on protesters who are taking the first steps forward by demanding the removal of these statues. No one pretends that bringing them down or placing them in a museum where they can serve a more educational function will bring about reconciliation. Indigenous people just want to see progress in any government committed to building nation-to-nation relationships.
As an interpretive discipline, Canadian history has invalidated and erased Indigenous and Black people from the national story. Monuments and street and city names have all anchored a reality that has allowed racism to flourish. When these values are celebrated and memorialized, I understand the pain that my ancestors experienced in the face of xenophobia and racialized violence. The unresolved guilt of those who refuse to examine this reality will continue to be felt in the vicious attacks perpetrated against people fighting to right historical wrongs.
This column first appeared in Broadview’s October 2020 issue with the title “Why statues should fall.”
Mike Alexander is an Anishinaabe artist, writer and triathlete originally from Swan Lake First Nation and now living in Kamloops, B.C.
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