What we lose by tearing down Sir John A.’s statue

Protestors want to bring awareness to their calls for social justice. Is destroying a statue of Canada’s first prime minister the best way to do that?
By Steve Paikin - Published on Aug 31, 2020
Demonstrators in Montreal tore down a statue of John A. Macdonald over the weekend. (Graham Hughes/CP)

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We need voices such as Richard Gwyn’s more than ever now.

But Richard, one of Canada’s most prolific authors, columnists, and historians, died earlier this month. So I cannot reach out to him to find out what he thinks of what transpired in Montreal this past weekend.

In case you missed it, a group of protesters, aiming to bring attention to their calls for racial and social justice, lassoed a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald at Place du Canada — a location that symbolizes our shared hopes for a united country — pulled it off its pedestal, and, in the process, beheaded it.

Given that Richard wrote the definitive two-volume biography of Canada’s first prime minister, I’d sure love to have heard whether he approved of these actions. Or even whether he understood them.

Despite his best efforts, though, there is still much about Macdonald that too many Canadians think they know but don’t. For example, many think he’s the father of the Indian Act, but that dubious honour goes to the first-ever Liberal prime minister of Canada, Alexander Mackenzie.

Many think he’s the creator of the residential-school system, in which so many Indigenous youth were abused and killed as the church and government of the day attempted to assimilate them into the majority culture. In fact, the creation of residential schools predates Macdonald’s prime ministership by three decades. Did he put a stop to them? No, he didn’t. Did he support their mission? Alas, he did.

This is certainly not meant to give Macdonald a pass on his beliefs: You can excoriate him further for executing Louis Riel, who today is seen more as a Father of Confederation, but who, as far as Macdonald was concerned, was a threat to the prime minister’s government. The Tories became a non-entity in Quebec for generations thanks to Macdonald’s poor judgment there.

Recently, Macdonald has become almost the exclusive target of protesters looking to make a point about racial injustice. This is curious, given that it was Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s government that imposed an astronomical head tax on would-be Chinese immigrants in order to reduce their numbers. Yet we hear virtually no demands to have Laurier’s image taken off the $5 bill, nor to see his name removed from one of Ontario’s larger universities.

It was the government of William Lyon Mackenzie King, whose anti-Semitism was so apparent that an immigration official, when asked how many Jews ought to be allowed into Canada to save them from Hitler’s gas chambers, answered, “None is too many.” Yet King remains on our $50 bill, and there’s been nary a peep about ending that practice.

Somehow, all the evils of past generations now sit at John A. Macdonald’s feet.

Yet, while Richard was never naive about Macdonald’s shortcomings, it’s worth considering his view on the prime minister’s place in history: “No Macdonald, no Canada.”

By coincidence, as demonstrators in Montreal were beheading Macdonald’s statue, I was with a group of nerds in Kingston, taking a tour of the city’s historic sites. At the base of Macdonald’s statue in that city, we had a discussion about this very issue. Should we be pulling down Macdonald’s statues all across Canada? Should we be taking his name off of schools? (Ontario’s elementary-teachers union voted to do just that three years ago this month.)

What would Richard Gwyn recommend?

I can’t be sure, but I’m almost certain he would start with: let’s have the debate. He loved nothing more than to sink his teeth into controversial issues. But I feel certain that he’d also say, let’s make sure we take up this issue without anyone getting hurt. He would wonder how the presumably time-consuming effort to put several ropes around Macdonald’s statue in order to bring it down attracted absolutely no law enforcement who might have prevented the destruction of public property. And he would probably want to ask those demonstrators how the wanton destruction of Macdonald’s statue would lead to further opportunities to debate these issues. If the statue isn’t there, he might ask, how can it provoke Canadians to discuss these things? We might still learn about Macdonald in grade school, but do we not want opportunities as adults to be spontaneously provoked so we can weigh in on these matters?

The American civil-rights icon John Lewis, who also died earlier this month, used to talk about getting into “good trouble” when he marched to demand civil rights for Black Americans. However, Lewis’s demonstrations were always non-violent. He never advocated the destruction of public or private property. And, in the end, he enjoyed his share of success. President Lyndon Johnson championed two pieces of landmark legislation on civil and voting rights. And the yardsticks moved enough to enable Barack Obama to become president.  

Richard might also have pointed out that no less an authority on these issues than Jimmy Carter opposed the tearing down of statues in the Deep South. Although white, the 39th president’s bona fides on civil rights are beyond question. He even quit attending and teaching at the church in rural Georgia he’d been a member of for decades, because he thought it wasn’t welcoming enough to Black parishioners.

Carter (like Richard, I suspect) favours leaving the statues up and adding new plaques, updating the hagiography that accompanies the current statues. Plaques offering a fuller rendering of history, the argument goes, can do a better job than an empty pedestal of encouraging us to understand the past. Furthermore, why not create new statues honouring those whose voices have traditionally not been heard?

I think it’s fair to say that never before have more Canadians been more open to understanding their history, warts and all.  We’re anxious to go beyond the simplistic, almost cartoonish version of history we learned in grade school. We are in the midst of a racial reckoning that has obviously been a long time coming. But if we’re now saying that the new rules of that reckoning permit the destruction of items in the public space, well, that is a slippery slope that can lead only to more mayhem, not more understanding. Lewis understood that better than anyone that violence would beget more violence.

This should not be a partisan political issue, and, for the most part, it hasn’t been. The premiers of Quebec, Ontario, and Alberta have decried this violence. So have new federal Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole and the mayor of Montreal. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday stated that he was “deeply disappointed” by the protestors' actions: “Those kinds of acts of vandalism are not advancing the path towards greater equality and justice in this country.”

I so wish Alzheimer’s hadn’t ended Richard’s life earlier this month. We desperately need his intelligent, calm, and engaging voice right now. I know many would prefer to pigeonhole him as a privileged white man who couldn’t possibly understand these issues. Yes, he was white. Yes, he was privileged. But I’ve gotta believe he’d have something relevant to bring to this conversation. And destroying our history to create a better future surely wouldn’t be on his list of recommendations.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrently attributed a quote to Mackenzie King's immigration minister. If fact, the quote was from an unnamed immigration official. TVO.org regrets the error.

This article has been updated to include Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's comments.

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