What to do with the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald?

Regina city council voting on removal of Sir John A. Macdonald statue from Victoria Park

Regina's city council is set to vote on future of the controversial statue

The City of Regina's administration said the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald should be removed from Victoria Park and placed in storage until a proper home and appropriate "educational programming and narrative" is developed. The council votes on the matter today. (Neil Cochrane/CBC)

Sir John A. Macdonald's statue has presided over Victoria Park in Regina's downtown core for about 54 years, but pending a city council decision today it could be on its way out. 

If the 11 members vote to remove the Macdonald statue, that will lead to an equally divisive question: What does one do with a 500-kilogram, bronze sculpture of Canada's first prime minister, who is widely regarded as the architect of the country's residential school system?

Statues of Macdonald across the country have become increasingly controversial in recent years because of his connection to the residential school system, which uprooted about 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children from their communities for decades until the last school closed in the 1990s.

For some, like Joely BigEagle-Kequahtooway the answer is simple — statues of Macdonald should be confined to the dustbin of history.

"For me, it's best if it just got put in a big, huge box and put away in some basement," BigEagle-Kequahtooway said.

Petition to remove the statue dates back to 2018

She started the petition to remove Macdonald's statue from Victoria Park in 2018, and that prompted a City of Regina report on the monument.

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Last week, the city's administration said the statue should be removed and placed in storage until a proper home and appropriate "educational programming and narrative" is developed. City council will hold a majority vote on the recommendation at today's meeting, which starts at 1 p.m. CST. 

Joely BigEagle-Kequahtooway petitioned the City of Regina to remove the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald from Victoria Park. (Tyler Pidlubny/CBC)

The issue has divided people, with some arguing that the monuments belong on display in museums or in public spaces, where the historical figure's contributions, both bad and good, can be fully examined.

"A statue of [Macdonald] needs to have that other information that you have about him so that people can get to know and understand the complexity of him and the good things that he did for this country and the horrible things he did to Indigenous people," said Robert Innes, Department Head of Indigenous Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, and a member of the Cowessess First Nation. 

The bronze statue of Macdonald was installed in Victoria Park in 1967 to commemorate the country's 100th anniversary of Confederation. It stands about 2.5 metres tall, weighs nearly 500 kilograms and was cast at John Nugent's foundry in Lumsden, about 30 kilometres northwest of Regina. 

At that time, Macdonald's role in creating residential schools and his government's policy of starving Indigenous people to achieve settlement was widely ignored, said Innes.

History has been erased and has been erased for over a hundred years in this country.- Robert Innes

"History has been erased and has been erased for over a hundred years in this country. Most people don't want to erase history. They want the fuller story brought forth and the complexity of our history brought forth."

Placing the Macdonald statue in a museum allows a more complete story of Canada's first prime minister to be properly told, he said. It also takes the monument of a man responsible for the deaths of thousands of Indigenous people out of a public park.  

"There's definitely going to be people who want to bury him and bury that from our consciousness. People who don't really want that to come out. They don't want to think that John A. Macdonald could be linked to genocide."  

BigEagle-Kequahtooway agreed with Innes that Macdonald's full role in history as it relates to Indigenous people must be taught, but she said a statue of him placed in a museum offers no value. 

Statues are for role models and people that we should look up to.- Joely BigEagle-Kequahtooway

"Statues are for role models and for people that we should look up to. And, you know, now that we're educated about this individual, I think that we should all rally together and say: 'Yeah, I don't think that we need to have this statue in a place of honour,'" she said.

BigEagle-Kequahtooway doesn't want the statue destroyed. She said it should be warehoused and made accessible for researchers and archivists.

While the City of Regina administration recommended the statue's removal, some people think it should remain in Victoria Park. 

"Removing this, or any other "offensive" statue is a form of censorship," Linda Miller-Wenman wrote in a submission to city council. "It is a very slippery slope as monuments, great works of art, feats of great engineering all over the world would be demolished if demolition was approved because the person/people involved practised racism (or some other undesirable trait.)" 

Macdonald's legacy

The statue should remain in the park with a permanent plaque attached detailing Macdonald's failures and successes as prime minister, Miller-Wenman said.

Last summer, the city attached a temporary sign to the statue recognizing Macdonald's harmful legacy to the Indigenous community.

A sign placed around the bottom of the statue by the City of Regina states they are working with Indigenous elders, artists and community members on how to proceed. (CBC News)

Placing the statue in a public museum in Regina would bring its own challenges because there's not an obvious home for the monument.

Innes suggested the Royal Saskatchewan Museum might be a fit. 

The museum uses life-size dioramas to detail the province's natural and Aboriginal history at its Regina location. However, the museum is currently closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, and a representative could not be reached for comment.

Jonathan Tremblay, a spokesperson for the Provincial Capital Commission (PCC), which manages Wascana Centre and Government House in Regina, did not respond directly to questions about the possibility of moving the statue to Government House — a museum and event space  — which was originally built in 1891 as the official residence for Saskatchewan's lieutenant-governor. 

If the statue is removed from the park, it's unclear where it would go. Some people have suggested it be placed in a musuem such as Government House in Regina. (Neil Cochrane/CBC)

However, Tremblay said the PCC works with First Nations and Metis partners and supports reconciliation across Saskatchewan. 

Heritage Regina, which preserves historic sites and buildings in the city, said in a submission to the city council that it supported the removal of the statue and continued consultation with Indigenous groups.

"We hope that ultimately the status (sic) comes back out into the city and the full story of John A. Macdonald is told," the letter stated.

The City of Regina has consulted with Indigenous groups regarding the future of the Macdonald statue and is asking for the public's opinion through its online portal Be Heard.