Indigenous artists reimagine new statue at Manitoba Legislature in place of Queen Victoria

While the provincial government says its made no decisions with what to do with a damaged statue and the spot where it stood on Manitoba's legislature grounds, Indigenous artists are designing their own alternatives.

Manitoba government says no decisions made after prominent monument toppled on Canada Day

Kenneth Lavallee stands in front of the Manitoba Legislature, where the statue of Queen Victoria used to stand. He holds a shell and sweetgrass, which has inspired his design idea. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

When Métis artist Kenneth Lavallee heard the statue of Queen Victoria had been toppled at Manitoba's legislative grounds, he looked down at his desk. On it sat a shell and sweetgrass — a gift from his mother.

"The iridescent shell just kind of caught my eye. And I was like, 'This is beautiful.'"

Lavallee got to work, designing a statue inspired by the act of smudging. 

"You burn sweetgrass to cleanse your mind and spirit, the environment and space. I thought this place could use a good cleansing," he said, standing in front of the pedestal where the statue of Queen Victoria used to sit.

"I've been talking about the queen for a long time— that particular sculpture, how out of place it seemed here. Front row, centre. Why does she get the best spot? She's never been here. She doesn't really represent anything of Manitoba or its people."

Kenneth Lavallee holds a shell and sweetgrass, given to him by his mother. He says looking at the shell inspired his design. (Jaison Empson/CBC)
Lavallee's design has received major support online. (Submitted by Kenneth Lavallee)

The statue, which sat on the front lawn of the Manitoba Legislature grounds, facing Broadway, was brought down on Canada Day by a small group of participants in the Every Child Matters walk — held in honour of children forced to attend residential schools. 

Red handprints were painted on the statue and its base, and its head was severed and thrown in the river, where it was later recovered.

A smaller statue of Queen Elizabeth on the provincial legislature grounds was also toppled. Both statues have since been moved.

Now, Lavallee and other Indigenous artists are reimagining what could sit in front of Manitoba's legislature building.

Métis artist Val Vint said an idea came to her in a dream, as she was trying to work through the pain of hearing about the hundreds of unmarked graves found on the sites of Canada's former residential schools.

"Usually I'll put tobacco down and pray in times like that because you need something to get through. And all my best things come in my dreams," Vint said.

"I woke up in the morning and I could see what I wanted there. I can't really say everything about it, but I have a piece in my head developed for that legislative site that would represent all our peoples."

Artist Val Vint, who created this bison statue at The Forks in Winnipeg, says she wants a design in front of the legislature that represents all Indigenous Manitobans. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Vint, whose statue Education is the New Bison was unveiled at The Forks in Winnipeg in May 2020, says she wants something in front of the legislature that sends a positive message.

The decision about what to do with the damaged Queen Victoria statue, and what to put in its place, should be made by Indigenous Manitobans, according to Omeasoo Wahpasiw, who studies how public spaces often tell one version of Canadian history.

"It's up to the people of the territory what they feel is correct," said Wahpasiw, who is Cree and originally from Saskatchewan.

Children in orange shirts climb on top of a downed statue of Queen Victoria on Canada Day. A small group pulled the monument off its pedestal, covering it in red paint. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

Wahpasiw, an assistant professor who teaches arts education and Indigenous history at the University of Prince Edward Island, says what is left of the statue now is art too. Keeping it on display would have not erased history, but instead enabled it to tell a story that hasn't been heard before, she said.

"It's meant to be a dramatic representation of the pain and suffering that our people have gone through. And Queen Victoria, as well as the current queen, really stand as symbols of that system that chose to do that to our relatives," she said.

"They might have been sitting in their palace eating crumpets but the things they represented, the people they kept on their payroll, and the policies they directed ... created violence."

The province has not said what it plans to do with the damaged Queen Victoria statue or what could go in its place. When asked on Monday, Justice Minister Cameron Friesen said it was too soon to make decisions on what should go there.

Manitoba's acting health minister, Kelvin Goertzen, posted  a comment on Facebook Monday saying the Queen Victoria statue would be restored. His spokesperson would not confirm whether that is in fact the case.

Indigenous artists reimagine new statue at Manitoba Legislature

1 year ago
Duration 2:38
Now that the statue of Queen Victoria is gone from the Manitoba Legislature, Indigenous artists are re-imagining what could go in its place.


Marina von Stackelberg is a senior reporter currently working for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. She previously worked as a reporter and host in Winnipeg, with earlier stints in Halifax and Sudbury. Her stories regularly appear across the country on CBC Radio and CBC News Network. Connect with her by email at or on social media @CBCMarina.