Activists topple statue of Sir John A. Macdonald in downtown Montreal
'We must fight racism, but destroying parts of our history is not the solution,' says Quebec premier
A group of activists toppled a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald in Place du Canada in downtown Montreal on Saturday afternoon in the aftermath of a protest calling for the defunding of the police force.
A handful of people climbed the monument, tied ropes around the statue and held up banners before unbolting it and pulling it down. The falling statue's trajectory caused the head to fly off and bounce onto the cobblestones below. A video posted to social media captured the moment.
The incident took place following a peaceful march through downtown Montreal, one of several demonstrations held across Canada organized by a coalition of Black and Indigenous activists.
It was not clear what affiliation, if any, those who pulled down the statue had with the march. The falling statue appeared to catch other demonstrators, organizers and police by surprise. A march organizer, contacted by CBC Montreal, declined to comment.
A CBC journalist obtained a leaflet from a demonstrator who said it had been distributed to explain the act. The leaflet points to an online petition with more than 46,000 signatures asking Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante to take down the statue.
"Sir John A. Macdonald was a white supremacist who orchestrated the genocide of Indigenous peoples with the creation of the brutal residential schools system, as well as promoting other measures that attacked Indigenous peoples and traditions," the leaflet reads in part.
Because of the city's inaction, "a diverse coalition of young activists" decided to act, the leaflet says, though it does not identify the coalition.
As of late Saturday afternoon, no arrests had been made.
City workers removed the statue from the ground with a crane on Sunday morning.
Premier, mayor denounce vandalism
The statue of Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister, has been the site of repeated acts of graffiti in recent years, and it has often been covered in red paint.
It was also decapitated by unknown vandals in 1992. The Montreal Gazette reported at the time that a fax sent to media outlets claimed the act of vandalism was timed to commemorate the anniversary of the hanging of Louis Riel on Nov. 16, 1885.
On Twitter Saturday, Quebec Premier François Legault wrote that "whatever one might think of John A. Macdonald, destroying a monument in this way is unacceptable. We must fight racism, but destroying parts of our history is not the solution. Vandalism has no place in our democracy and the statue must be restored."
Earlier in the day, Jason Kenney, Legault's counterpart in Alberta, also used Twitter to decry the act and said Alberta would host the statue if Montreal didn't want it.
In a statement Saturday, Plante wrote that the city's public art office and heritage experts will co-ordinate the statue's restoration.
"I strongly deplore the acts of vandalism that took place this afternoon in downtown Montreal," she said in the statement.
She said some monuments are at "the heart of emotional debates," a reference to contemporary critiques of Macdonald's legacy and record on Indigenous issues — which includes establishing Canada's residential school system.
"I understand and share the motivation of citizens who want to live in a more just and inclusive society," her statement said. "But the discussion and the necessary actions must be carried out peacefully, without ever resorting to vandalism."
Plante said Montreal police would investigate.
WATCH | Activists in Montreal topple a statue of John A. Macdonald:
In an email, Dinu Bumbaru, the policy director of Heritage Montreal, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the city's architectural and cultural heritage, described the act as "very unfortunate, and despite the feelings of those who carried it out, undemocratic."
He noted the city's rich history of political tensions, which are frequently captured in the monuments of the past.
"Many of the historical figures in bronze carry dark memories which our current society sees in a critical eye, which past generations didn't," he wrote, citing Macdonald specifically.
"Montreal deserves an educated public discussion on this for the 21st century. Not vandalism or similar executions. And Montreal deserves more monuments to add new voices. Not less."
A magnet for controversy
In recent years, concerns about Macdonald's actions and policies have made statues of the man targets of activists in cities across Canada.
In Victoria, city council voted to remove the statue from the steps of city hall as a gesture of reconciliation in 2018.
One in Charlottetown has been the frequent target of paint and the subject of a debate, with the city council recently deciding to keep the statue but begin a conversation with P.E.I.'s Indigenous community about how to present it.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.With files from Sarah Leavitt, Simon Nakonechny and Radio-Canada