Manitoba

Mother figure or colonial oppressor? Examining Queen Victoria's legacy after Winnipeg statue toppled

After a statue of Queen Victoria was pulled down on the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature on Canada Day, two professors in the province say they want to set the record straight about the life and legacy of the British monarch.

19th-century ruler was the face of 'brutal' colonialism, says Native studies professor Niigaan Sinclair

Queen Victoria is considered the face of the British Empire in the 19th century. Indigenous people in Canada are still reeling from the colonialism she presided over, says Native studies professor Niigaan Sinclair. (Senate of Canada)

After a statue of Queen Victoria was pulled down on the Manitoba legislative grounds on Canada Day, two professors in the province say they want to set the record straight about the life and legacy of the British monarch.

Victoria reigned over the United Kingdom from 1837 until her death in 1901, a period marked by the unparalleled expansion of the British Empire, including continued expansion across what's now called Canada.

"Queen Victoria presided during some of the most brutal and expansive years of colonial history — when land was stolen the most, when things like the Indian Act [were] put into place," said Niigaan Sinclair, a Native studies professor at the University of Manitoba.

He says he can understand why on July 1, a small group of people taking part in the Every Child Matters walk — held in honour of children forced to attend residential schools — pulled down the statue of Queen Victoria at the Manitoba legislature. Red hand prints were painted on the statue and its base, and its head was severed and thrown in the Assiniboine River.

A smaller statue depicting Queen Elizabeth on the legislature grounds was also pulled down.

The response was likely prompted by anger and frustration, as more people confront the grim truths of Canada's residential school system and the country's colonial legacy.

A statue of Queen Victoria at the Manitoba Legislature was toppled and its head removed on Canada Day. Sinclair says he understands that reaction given the long-lasting impacts of colonialism. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

British Empire's role in dispossessing Indigenous people

"We've got 150 years of brutal, draconian, terrible violence, much of it still continuing on the streets of Winnipeg in policies and laws, so it's with little surprise that people would turn to this," Sinclair said.

"Let's get some scope here. A statue being re-altered or edited or vandalized, whatever you want to call it, is nowhere near the kind of scope that Indigenous peoples continue to experience every day."

Adele Perry, the director of the Centre for Human Rights Research and a professor in the department of history at the U of M, says Queen Victoria and the British Empire had an "absolutely crucial role" in Canada's negotiation of treaties, residential schools and other systems that dispossessed Indigenous people.

Although she never visited Canada, Victoria reigned during the signing of the five numbered treaties that encompass the majority of Manitoba, wherein First Nations leaders entered into agreements with the Crown. 

The treaties are constitutionally recognized agreements that allowed the Canadian government to actively pursue agriculture, settlement, transportation links and resource development in exchange for payment or other promises, the Treaty Commission of Manitoba says.

Many First Nations considered the treaties sacred, living pacts that allowed the land and its bounties to be shared with the newcomers, and allowed for the creation of a shared future.

Critics have argued that shared future took a backseat to progress and Indigenous people got in the way.

A group of female students and a nun pose in a classroom at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Cross Lake, Man., in a February 1940 archive photo. History professor Adele Perry says Queen Victoria played a 'crucial role' in setting up the schools and other systems that dispossessed Indigenous people. (Library and Archives Canada)

How Victoria came to redefine colonial domination

Unlike her grandfather, King George III, Victoria was portrayed as "nice and familial" in an attempt to redefine colonial domination as more of a beneficial relationship, Perry says.

"Her status as a woman and as a mother of a large family was often … used in ways to sort of think of her as both a powerful monarch but also kind of a particularly maternal one," she said.

In reality, the Crown oversaw boarding schools and mission schools that served to separate children from the Indigenous people of other parts of the British Empire, which served as examples for Canada's residential schools.

Victoria's legacy lives on through "terrible policies of violence that we still see happening today," Sinclair said, referring to government inaction when it comes to issues like poverty, violence and a lack of clean drinking water on First Nations.

Royal historian and University of Toronto instructor Carolyn Harris says Queen Victoria is one of the most visible symbols of Canada's ties with Britain, noting she's represented across the country in monuments, place names and even a holiday.

People celebrate after the statue of Queen Victoria was toppled. (Travis Golby/CBC)

"She's become synonymous with her era in many ways, and her image is associated with that period in the 19th century," Harris said.

The toppling of the statue, she says, may not be about Queen Victoria so much as it is about the history of colonialism and empire on the landscape of Canada. 

Time to consider new monument 

Until recently, Queen Victoria's statue — erected in 1904, just three years after her death — held a place of prominence directly in front of the Manitoba Legislature, along with statues of four other European settlers, says Manitoba historian Gordon Goldsborough.

Because of Victoria's long period on the throne, he said there were "a lot of fond feelings for her."

"So I guess that's why they put up a monument to her."

Perry and Sinclair are among those who believe that fondness has faded, and it's time to consider a monument more inclusive of Manitoba's history.

Sinclair sees the orange flags, a sign reading "We were children once. Bring them home" and the red hand prints that remain on the statue's platform as a monument for the children who died at residential schools.

"We saw a peaceful indicator of change in our community. And I think that's a cause for celebration."

The severed head of the Queen Victoria statue was thrown in the Assiniboine River. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rachel Bergen is a journalist for CBC Manitoba and previously reported for CBC Saskatoon. Find her on Twitter at @r_bergen or email her at rachel.bergen@cbc.ca.

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