Politics·Analysis

Striking a pose: Canada and the politics of statues

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole is making a case for protecting statues because it's good politics. Is it also beside the point?

It's not just about who gets a statue — it's also about how much of the past we choose to acknowledge

The head of a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald lies on the ground following a demonstration in Montreal. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

In politics, all debates about the past are really about the present and the future.

So it is with Conservative leader Erin O'Toole's concern for the nation's statues — which is really about the leadership of Justin Trudeau and, ultimately, how this country ought to move forward.

The nation's supply of statues is by no means perfect. Just seven prime ministers have been honoured with statues on Parliament Hill; the most recent was Lester B. Pearson, who left office in 1968.

But O'Toole's worries about the possible erasure of history have not led him to campaign for a statue of Pierre Trudeau. Instead, he's focused his attention on the recent toppling of a statue of John A. Macdonald in Montreal.

After the first prime minister's likeness was pulled down last month, O'Toole tweeted his objections and called on unnamed "politicians" to "grow a backbone and stand up for our country." In a subsequent video message, he condemned "lawlessness," "violence" and "mob rule." O'Toole then raised his concerns again on Wednesday during a speech to Conservative MPs in Ottawa.

This is not a new focus for O'Toole. Two years ago, he criticized a decision by the city council in Victoria to remove a statue of Macdonald from City Hall.

History with a political spin

O'Toole prefaced his latest comments by noting that he and his fellow Conservatives were meeting in the Sir John A. Macdonald Building. But that was less of a poetic coincidence and more of a handy reminder that Canadian politicians are rarely apolitical when they invoke history. In this case, Macdonald's name was given to the former Bank of Montreal building by Stephen Harper's Conservative government in 2012. (Pierre Poilievre dressed up in period costume for the announcement.)

That commemoration was announced a year after the Conservatives renamed Ottawa's old City Hall to honour another Conservative prime minister, John Diefenbaker. Months before that, John Baird reportedly insisted that his business cards as foreign minister not include the name of the place in which he worked — the Lester B. Pearson Building.

One possible explanation for O'Toole's interest in statues can be found in survey results released by Leger Marketing a few hours before he addressed his caucus. According to Leger's findings, 50 per cent of Canadians oppose the removal of statues of politicians who expressed racist views or implemented racist policies, while just 31 per cent support removing such statues (the other 19 per cent are undecided).

Opposition is highest among Conservative voters (80 per cent). So while O'Toole moderates his party's position on fiscal policy, statues might provide him with a culture war rallying cry for the Conservative base.

An issue with cross-party appeal

Sticking up for Sir John A. might also appeal to some of the voters O'Toole's party needs to form a government. Fifty-six per cent of Bloc Quebecois supporters also oppose the removal of controversial statues, while Liberal voters are evenly split — 41 per cent opposed, 41 per cent in favour.

Rather than tearing down statues of people like Macdonald, O'Toole has said such memorials should include inscriptions that recognize both the good and bad aspects of their lives and work. He joked (somewhat curiously) that such a plaque could be added to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport in Montreal. (As Sen. Murray Sinclair told the National Observer, Macdonald's misdeeds and Trudeau's faults don't seem analogous.)

But O'Toole's concern for statues — and his suggestion that Trudeau isn't doing enough to stand up for them — seems like an extension of a critique Conservatives began building three years ago.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 21, 2017. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

In September 2017, Trudeau went to the United Nations and used Canada's speaking slot at the General Assembly to discuss this country's mistreatment of Indigenous peoples and the need for reconciliation.

Six weeks later, the Conservative Party sent a fundraising pitch to supporters that claimed Trudeau was "travelling abroad to places like the UN General Assembly to denigrate our country, and diminish Canada's great achievements." The email pointed to a speech made days earlier by then-leader Andrew Scheer in which he lamented that it's "fashionable today to look down at the past."

Facing up to the past

"If we look back at our rich history and study the leading figures in its telling and see only the blemishes, then we are missing out on the beautiful story of a country constantly bettering itself," Scheer said, arguing that anyone living in Canada today would have to agree that this country has been the best place in the world to live for the past 150 years.

Many people past and present — Indigenous peoples, Black Canadians, the poor — might disagree. Liberals no doubt would object to the suggestion that they only see the grimmer aspects of Canada's history.

But Trudeau certainly has aligned himself with the idea that it's important for a society to acknowledge and understand its mistakes — that facing up to the injustices of the past is a necessary part of righting wrongs and building a more just society.

If Conservatives don't entirely reject that thinking (it was Stephen Harper, after all, who launched the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and officially apologized for residential schools), they're at least willing to appeal to anyone who is uncomfortable with the idea, or with Trudeau's approach to it.

But there surely would be less interest in toppling statues of John A. Macdonald today if the basic injustice he propagated and advanced had been fully corrected by now — if the sins of the past had given way to a truly just present. And what leaders do to achieve reconciliation and social justice now surely will matter more than how they feel about statues.

Trudeau's record in those areas can be debated. O'Toole has expressed some interest in Indigenous reconciliation but the proposals contained in his leadership platform were primarily framed around economic issues.

The next several months could be instructive. Before the pandemic, the Trudeau government was committed to pursuing action on a number of fronts, including new legislation to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Liberals have since promised to come forward with a plan to combat systemic racism.

O'Toole, who has expressed misgivings about the UN declaration already, presumably will have to take a position on whatever the Liberals come up with and then explain what, if anything, he would do differently.

Such stuff might lack the spectacle and intensity of arguments about statues and history. But if future generations decide they want to see any of today's leaders cast in bronze, it will be because of what they did to improve the present and the future — not how they felt about commemorating the past.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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