McKenna says you can't erase troubled history by removing statues

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna has asked the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada to look at how to address concerns with historical figures like John A. Macdonald.

'It's by telling stories we recognize that we can do better,' minister says

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna is responsible for federal historic monuments in Canada 1:24

The minister responsible for Parks Canada says tearing down statues is not the solution when it comes to addressing the darker side of Canadian history.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna has asked the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada to look at how to address concerns with historical figures like John A. Macdonald, whose role in establishing residential schools has made him a polarizing figure in reconciliation efforts with Indigenous Peoples.

"I've tasked them to look at how do you have a thoughtful way with addressing concerns with certain people in our history, but you can't erase history," McKenna said.

"I personally believe that it's important that we recognize our history — the good and bad — and that we tell stories, because it's by telling stories we recognize that we can do better."

One option may be to erect a second statue or monument next to a controversial figure to represent Indigenous history at a particular site, she suggested.

McKenna's perspective seems in keeping with the recommendation of Sen. Murray Sinclair, the former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who has suggested that tearing down statues is "counterproductive" to reconciliation because it "smacks of revenge."

Sinclair's preference is for Canada to find more ways to recognize and honour Indigenous history and Indigenous Peoples. He was unavailable for an interview, but his spokeswoman said his thinking on the matter has not changed.

Victoria's removal controversial

The issue of tearing down statues has been a hot topic this week after the Victoria city council voted to remove a statue of Macdonald from the steps of city hall and is now considering where to put it.

Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister, is the man who commissioned residential schools, which over the course of more than a century sought to assimilate Indigenous children, forcing them to attend schools often thousands of miles from home.

The schools were run by the churches on behalf of the federal government and thousands of students were subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

A second plaque has been installed outside Victoria's City Hall to replace a bronze statue of Canada's first Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, after the first was vandalized shortly after the removal of the statue over the weekend. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

Sinclair's comprehensive report looking at the history of the schools and their impact branded them as a form of "cultural genocide."

Last year, the federal Liberal government stripped the name of residential schools developer Hector-Louis Langevin from the building across from Parliament Hill that houses the Prime Minister's Office. The city of Calgary followed suit, renaming its Langevin Bridge as Reconciliation Bridge.

In 2017, the union representing elementary school teachers in Ontario voted in favour of encouraging schools named after Macdonald to find new names. At the time, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Ottawa had no plans to remove the name from anything within federal jurisdiction.