Indigenous educator supports smashing Sir John A. Macdonald's legacy through protest

University of Prince Edward Island assistant professor Omeasoo Wāhpāsiw says the dismantling of a Sir John A. Macdonald statue in Montreal is an important act of protest that makes the point loud and clear.

Omeasoo Wāhpāsiw sees dismantling of statue as way of rebuilding places

City of Montreal workers use a crane to remove a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald from the ground after a group of activists toppled it on Saturday afternoon. (Mariève Bégin/Radio-Canada)

The dismantling of a Sir John A. Macdonald statue in downtown Montreal is an important act of protest because it does not physically harm others and makes the point of protest loud and clear, says a University of Prince Edward Island expert.

"It makes such a strong statement about how the protesters feel about what Canada is currently structured on, and what changes need to be made, and how we need to reassess our history," Omeasoo Wāhpāsiw, an assistant professor in the university's faculty of education, told CBC News Network on Sunday.

A video on social media taken Saturday from a demonstration to defund the police shows a handful of people toppling the statue, breaking off the head.

A banner, hoisted as the statue was pulled down, said that Macdonald has "bloody hands" for disenfranchising the Asian community and for being one of the architects of the residential school system.

That clip had more than 1.2 million views on Twitter by the time of publication.

Alberta United Conservative Party Premier Jason Kenney responded to the protest action with a series of tweets that read the "extreme left" is "responsible for this kind of violence" and that Macdonald overcame personal trauma to become Canada's first prime minister.

"This vandalism of our history and heroes must stop," he wrote.

"It's right to debate his legacy and life. But it is wrong to allow roving bands of thugs to vandalize our history with impunity."

City of Montreal workers removed the statue from the ground on Sunday.

Dismantling history of Canada

In the Sunday interview, Wāhpāsiw responded to Kenney's comments.

Wāhpāsiw wrote her dissertation on how public spaces shape people's understanding of the world they live in today through architecture and symbolism. She is Nehiyaw, which means Cree, and her mother is from Saddle Lake Cree Nation.

University of Prince Edward Island assistant professor Omeasoo Wāhpāsiw supports dismantling historical figures as a way of coming to terms with the complex legacy of Canada. (CBC)

She said it was particularly interesting for her to see the statue destroyed in this manner given Macdonald's influence on the national railway network and shaping Confederation.

"Most Canadians are very excited about, acknowledge, that this created Canada, brought us all together," she said.

"But at the same time, those railways dispossessed Indigenous people, caused physical harm and death to many Indigenous people as well as people who worked on the railway, including Chinese-Canadians."

Canada's first prime minister is recognized as a founder of the North-West Mounted Police, which effectively became the federal law enforcement agency known as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The role and responsibility of police forces have been central points of protest across Canada and the world.

Wāhpāsiw disputes the idea that colonial pressures have ended, which is why she argues in favour of dismantling and challenging the legacy on which the nation is fundamentally built.

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said the statue will be restored. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

"There are people in Canada who continue to be marginalized and that is part — almost entirely — due to the fact that capitalism is a system that oppresses people and in order to succeed, many people have to suffer and often those are people who are Indigenous, Black and people of colour," she said.

Wāhpāsiw supports what she calls protesters vandalizing the statues in a way that maintains the historical figure while acknowledging and expressing critical perspectives on its history.

"It reminds us that, no, we're not happy with it and we'd like to change it."

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said public art and heritage experts will co-ordinate the statue's restoration. Its future remains uncertain.

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With files from Sarah Rieger and Mariève Bégin