Politics

Trudeau condemns destruction of Sir John A. Macdonald statue in Montreal

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau today condemned vandalism by activists that brought down a statue of the country’s first prime minister in Montreal over the weekend.

'Actions such as that have no place in a society that abides by the rule of law,' Trudeau says

The head of a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald is shown torn down following a demonstration in Montreal on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020. The protestors called on governments to defund the police and end all systemic racism. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau today condemned vandalism by activists that brought down a statue of the country's first prime minister in Montreal over the weekend.

Speaking to reporters at an announcement about COVID-19 vaccines, Trudeau said that while some of the country's past leaders have done questionable things, acts of destruction are not the best way to advance the fight for equality.

"We are a country of laws and we are a country that needs to respect those laws, even as we seek to improve and change them, and those kind of acts of vandalism are not advancing the path towards greater justice and equality in this country," Trudeau said.

"Actions such as that have no place in a society that abides by the rule of law," he added in French.

The statue of Sir John A. Macdonald in Montreal — like those in some other cities — was targeted by activists because of his association with the Indian residential school system, which forcibly removed Indigenous children from the "savages" in their home communities for education in largely church-run facilities where abuse was rampant.

Macdonald also opposed Chinese immigration on racist grounds, fearing it would dilute the British character of Canada.

In order to limit new arrivals, Macdonald's government passed the Chinese Immigration Act in 1885, which levied a $50 "head tax" on Chinese immigrants.

The activists say the glorification of Macdonald is out of step with the modern push for racial justice.

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society (FNCFCS) of Canada, said there's a tendency in Canada to "whitewash" history and sanitize historical figures like Macdonald.

"I think one of the things about statues is they represent who you exalt in a culture and, all too often, this exaltation happens in an absence of history," Blackstock told CBC's Power & Politics.

"This is not a man with a clean record, shall we say. And when you have a statue of someone like that without context — and governments are slow to act — then people will take action on their own."

Blackstock said an effort should be made to alert people to the full backgrounds of figures from history who are honoured with public memorials. She cited an initiative she spearheaded with Ottawa-based Beechwood Cemetery to put plaques next to the gravesites of controversial historical figures, such as residential school officials, as something that could be replicated elsewhere.

She said more Canadians should know about Macdonald's mistreatment of Indigenous peoples on the Prairies and his other perceived failings, such as his involvement in the hanging of Métis leader Louis Riel.

The Macdonald statue was toppled and decapitated during a protest calling on political leaders to de-fund police services — part of a wave of protests across the continent against excessive violence perpetrated by law enforcement against Black and Indigenous people.

Macdonald, who served as prime minister for some 19 years, is remembered mostly for his key role in bringing together a collection of disparate British colonies to create a new entity that is now one of the most prosperous and free countries on earth.

He spearheaded the construction of the transcontinental railway that united the fledgling country, encouraged immigration to develop Western Canada and backed tariff-based industrial policies that resulted in a robust domestic manufacturing sector.

"He was our first prime minister and I think it's important to recognize the role he played in the creation of this country compared to world we live in now," Trudeau said in French.

"We must acknowledge where there were comments, perspectives, certain actions that were unacceptable — that's part of recognizing our history as a country."

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller acknowledged Macdonald is "not uncontroversial" and said his racism toward Indigenous peoples should be acknowledged, but added it's still inappropriate to destroy statues.

"I don't believe anyone should break things to make a point and indeed, this was a demonstration about systemic racism and I believe it undermined that discussion," Miller said in an interview.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney condemned what he called "this vandalism of our history and heroes." (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

A number of other political leaders have condemned the destruction of the Macdonald monument, saying these vandals are intent on erasing Canada's history and applying 21st century values to a leader who served more than 150 years ago.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney asked that the damaged statue be sent to his province so it could be repaired and redeployed to acknowledge Macdonald's contributions as the country's first leader and a Father of Confederation.

"This vandalism of our history and heroes must stop," Kenney said in a tweet.

"As his biographer Richard Gwyn wrote, 'No Macdonald, no Canada.' Both Macdonald and the country he created were flawed but still great."

Quebec Premier François Legault also objected to the destruction of the Macdonald statue and promised to restore it to its rightful place at the Place du Canada in Montreal's downtown core.

"Whatever one might think of John A. Macdonald, destroying a monument in this way is unacceptable. We must fight racism, but destroying parts of our history is not the solution," he said.

Asked if the statue should be moved to a museum to avoid offending some people, Legault said the statue will return to the public square.

"We may have a discussion in the next years about changes but right now, the decision is that it will be [put back] in place," he said. "Right now, we'll restore the statue."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a senior writer in the CBC's parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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