Why artists across Canada support taking down statues that represent our nation's ugly past
April Aliermo is one of the 3,000 artists who have signed in support of intervention. Here, she explains why
Artists and their work have long played a crucial role in driving sociopolitical movements. From government dissent, to cultural and race-based struggle, to queer and feminist resistances, it often falls upon the artist to publicly highlight injustices. While we regularly see protest manifested in forms like photography, music, fashion, and now digital art, it is much less apparent in the world of public sculpture. Often, these pieces are obligatory monuments to historical men — for instance, those who have established some kind of institution.
John A. Macdonald and Egerton Ryerson are two such figures in Canadian history. Macdonald — the first prime minister of Canada — and Ryerson — who founded Ontario's public education system — are both celebrated with monuments in their honour: Macdonald's statue stands at over eight feet tall in Toronto's Queen's Park, while Ryerson University is named after the educator, with a prominent statue on the school grounds. However, what is left out of this narrative is the atrocities they committed against Indigenous communities. Both men were involved with creating the residential school system, where 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children were taken from their families and forced to assimilate with a Eurocentric culture. Children were mentally, physically, and sexually abused, with up to 6,000 of them dying in the system's care. The harmful legacy of these schools continues to impact Indigenous communities today.
Macdonald and Ryerson's hand in this has largely been ignored by the Canadian public but is finally being examined. Most recently, protesters splashed paint on the statues of both men, as well as King Edward VII, to call attention to their ugly histories and raise important questions. In 2020, do these men and their actions reflect our current value system? Do they still deserve to be immortalized with statues and honoured in public spaces? And what is the role of the artist in this discussion?
Reflecting on these monuments, sculptor Shary Boyle says, "The truth of violent racism, religious assimilation, racial exploitation, and colonial genocide perpetrated by the British and French 'fathers' of this country in order to benefit from Indigenous land theft and resource extraction has been suppressed in our schools, and 'forgotten' in white society, for generations. But the raw truth of Canada's beginnings, and the painful legacy it has left us, is available for all to learn."
"Artists are the first responders to uncomfortable and painful truths, and through art and action they ask the larger public to look at those truths more clearly."
Interdisciplinary artist Nepsidhu adds, "We have a moment now unlike any time before to not so much 'rewrite history' but to align our public spaces with accurate historical record and consideration for Canada's First Nations communities, as well as those that have come afterward to call this country home."
Boyle and Nepsidhu aren't the only ones who believe these statues do not have a place in our public spaces. In 2017, the Ryerson Students Union and the Indigenous Students Association demanded that the statue of Egerton Ryerson be removed and their school be renamed — but to no avail. Earlier this year, the same demands resurfaced through a student-led petition with nearly 10,000 signees. Still no changes have been made; all that the school has offered thus far is a plaque and the promise of a future task force.
With these demands being ignored, a group of artists from Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLM-TO) decided to elevate the issues themselves. When they splashed paint on the statues of Macdonald, Ryerson, and King Edward VII, they stated: "These monuments honour legacies of racial violence, segregation and genocide, and their presence in public space emphasizes that the lives and histories of Black and Indigenous people are not valued in spaces that we all share."
Three participants in this peaceful public art intervention were arrested and charged with three counts each of mischief under $5,000. Black Lives Matter Toronto co-founder Rodney Diverlus says that the three were detained for 17 hours and, in a situation that lawyer Saron Gebrasellassi called "unheard of," denied access to legal counsel for approximately five hours. As far as I know, this has not happened to any students during frosh week, who have performed similar actions in the actual name of mischief. The arrestees are set to appear in court on Sept. 30. If found guilty, they may face up to two years in jail.
Some may call this act vandalism, but I believe it to be an effective art intervention. What other actions have put Macdonald and Ryerson's tainted histories in the media the same way? What other criticisms have brought attention to the statues and surrounding issues as strongly?
According to the BLM-TO artists, they specifically chose pink to represent their queer and trans identities and to symbolize the "decades of leadership in the fight for abolition by trans women of colour and queer folks." In a press conference addressing the art intervention, BLM-TO co-founder Ravyn Wngz said, "Our love is radical; our love is abolitionist." Adding a bright colour — pink, commonly associated with love, femininity, and most importantly, queer identity — to these drab statues sends out a strong message: it is time for change.
BLM-TO's message resonates broadly throughout the artistic community. Three thousand artists, including myself, have signed an open letter in support of this intervention. Among the list of signees are some of Canada's most prominent artists: Governor General's Award winners Dionne Brand and Ali Kazimi; Order of Canada recipient Joy Kogawa; filmmakers Alanis Obomsawin, John Greyson, Audrey Huntley, and Jennifer Podemski; Polaris Music Prize winner Lido Pimienta and musicians Grimes and Leslie Feist; Kim Convenience's Jean Yoon; and renowned visual artists Nepsidhu, Shary Boyle, Rajni Perera, Ness Lee, and Kent Monkman.
Along with supporting Black Lives Matter's demands, the artists are calling for:
- All charges to be dropped against the three attendees
- An immediate reduction of the existing $1.1 billion Toronto Police Service budget by a minimum of 50 per cent
- A removal of monuments that celebrate genocide, racism and colonial violence
Nepsidhu reminds us: "In 1885, Louis Riel said, 'My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.' It has now come time to work with such artists that are amongst us today to help move forward this dialogue into a necessary healing that awaits us to take action upon."
Art in public spaces is meant to represent our sociocultural values and reflect our communities. We need to ask ourselves: who and what are we trying to stand for? I signed this letter in support of BLM-TO and this art intervention because I believe these statues represent an ugly history of racism and violence. It is our duty to recognize and rectify the mistakes of the past. For many, these statues represent the oppression and abuse of a nation of peoples. The ramifications of colonialism and the residential school system still affect the lives of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. This is the same system that continues to inflict and enable violence and oppression on Black people. Take down the statues.