How the vandalism of statues challenges our understanding of Canadian history

Last month, a monument of Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald was toppled in Montreal. But it wasn’t the first statue to come down in Canada. 
Last month a statue of John A Macdonald was toppled in Montreal. (Mariève Bégin/Radio-Canada; Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

This episode originally aired October 4, 2020.

Last month, a monument of Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, was toppled in Montreal. But it wasn't the first statue to come down in Canada. 

In 2018, a statue of Macdonald was removed from the grounds of Victoria's city hall. That same year, a statue of Edward Cornwallis — who is called one of the founders of Halifax — was removed from a park in that city. 

In 2020, the actions of these historical figures are being seen in a different light — with many acknowledging the harm they caused to Indigenous people. 

Omeasoo Wahpasiw is a professor at the University of Prince Edward Island, who studies how public spaces influence the way we interpret history. (CBC)

Omeasoo Wahpasiw is Cree and a professor at the University of Prince Edward Island, and she has studied how public spaces — and the statues that adorn them — give preference to a particular side of Canada's history. 

"All of the spaces that we are surrounded by shape our perception of that location … and statues contribute very much to that perception of how the society operates, what are its rules, what are its values and what does it stand for?" said Wahpasiw. 

Wahpasiw said she watched the video of the John A. Macdonald statue in Montreal being toppled several times, and found it particularly telling of the side of history given preference in this country.

"[The statue] valorizes one side of the story that Canada wants to share, it valorizes a story that has been violent, resulted in genocide and created a strong dynamic of inequality within our country that we don't like to acknowledge," said Wahpasiw. 

"[The inequality is] embodied in the actions of John A. McDonald, who is seen by Canadians as a great hero, the architect of confederation, the creator of the railroads."

"It undermines and hides the story of the actual people, [the Indigenous people], who welcomed newcomers to this land, the people who had a different worldview and values that could have shaped this country in a different scenario." 

In Charlottetown, where Wahpasiw currently lives, there's a statue of John A. Macdonald sitting on a bench. The statue has been vandalized several times, including being tipped over just last month.

Like with other statues of the controversial prime minister found across the country, Wahpasiw said there are people who want to see the Charlottetown statue removed. 

Charlottetown's controversial Sir John A. Macdonald statue has been the target of vandalism, including having red paint poured on it. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC )

"The local Mi'kmaq community got together a few weeks ago [at the statue] … and a residential school survivor draped a Mi'kmaq flag over top of John A. Macdonald's shoulder, and then discussed her experience of residential school," said Wahpasiw. 

"[The survivor explained] how painful it was that ... the city was valorizing a human being that destroyed a significant portion of [her] life."

Last June, the Charlottetown statue had red paint poured on it, which Wahpasiw sees as an interesting commentary on how our views of history are always evolving. 

"I think that the continued vandalism of these kinds of statues is an important representation of continued engagement in that history," said Wahpasiw. 

"By pouring red paint on it, we demonstrate a new way of looking at history … it demonstrates that as a society and citizens, we continue to change and reevaluate our histories." 

The use of red paint is particularly telling of the new narratives being told. 

"The red paint represents … the blood that is on John A. Macdonald's hands," said Wahpasiw. 

"[It represents Macdonald's] efforts to erase, delete, and murder us through various policies, including the removal of the buffalo for the purpose of the railroad, the starvation that took place because of the loss of the buffalo, the starvation that took place because of Indian Act policies, including the reserve system and high mortality rates in residential schools." 

But for Wahpasiw, red paint is also an inspirational colour that speaks to the resistance and survival of Indigenous people. 

"The red also represents … the national colour of Indigenous people across Turtle Island … and so [it represents] the power and resilience of our nations … and our celebration of life," said Wahpasiw.