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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Could the editor please capitalize the words White and Black or have both in lower case?
As for statues, are we good having statues of "trans" being erected (as in New York)? Or, is someone 30-50 years from now going to remove (or destroy) them, as they find our "today's" culture offensive, rather than progressive?
Perhaps we should burn churches and historic "Christian" buildings as we can find a lot of things from Christianity that is offensive and their leading of "cultural wrongs". We will never right the perceived wrongs of our faith. (Forget my last statement, some of us within the faith can destroy it without the help of the outside world.)
gordon fulford says:
I think this attitude to statues is entirely wrong
I hope you will have the decency to have an article that gives the other side
But maybe we are imitating the Russians and trying to rewrite our history
Dave Foley says:
Bringing the uncomfortable parts of our country's history forward, and making changes that reflect that, isn't 'rewriting' history, as some have suggested. It is CORRECTING history.
Canada's history has been horrific, and punitive toward our First Nations people. It's time we put aside our own fragility, and find out how we can help fix those that were hurt. There is so much that needs to be made up for.
You cannot correct history (unless you have a time machine or transporter of some kind). You can learn from your mistakes in history, but you can't change it. Revisionism of history is more accurate, but history is often written that way. If you look at the War of Independence, 'Hundred Years War', or the American Civil War, it depends who's side you were on, what perspective you had.
Dave Foley says:
I"m sorry, Gary, but I don't agree with you on that either. I don't feel that it is "Revisionism" either. It IS "Correcting" history. Correcting it to reflect what actually happened. The phrase "Revisionism" feels like it's an attempt to downplay the new context, and belittle the newer understanding. I don't know if that was your intent, but people need to know what happened, and why it was bad.
I went to school in the 70's and we never heard one peep about Residential Schools. We didn't hear about them, because the brutality was still being carried out, and it was still government sanctioned.
That's why I get so ticked off when I hear people trying to downplay the event itself. So what if there is blowback from people finding out what actually happened. People should be mad about it. It has been a long time coming.
I'm also not suggesting that the only people that should be talked about in our history are those that are 'pure' enough, because they don't frankly exist. I'm simply saying that the other issues being talked about here were not small issues. The attempted cultural 'cleansing' of our first nations people is something we should know about. And the perpetrators and backers of it, should be known too - even if they did other ostensibly 'good' things.
Rob Brown says:
I'm troubled by the approach taken in the article, "It’s time for Canada’s statues to fall." I'm particularly concerned at the one-sided perspective that appears.
For example, Egerton Ryerson was a multi-faceted individual, who did some wonderful things in developing the education system in Upper Canada (Ontario). It is also true that he helped develop what became the blight of Residential Schools. But if we see only the Residential Schools, we are missing more than half the man that Ryerson was. We need to hold a balanced understanding of such men.