The bronze likeness of John A. Macdonald looked down upon Montreal from its lofty perch for more than a century.
Erected in 1895, it was meant to celebrate Canada’s first prime minister and his role in Confederation.
But in recent years, the statue has become a frequent target of vandalism. In 1992, the statue was decapitated on the anniversary of the hanging of Louis Riel, the Métis leader and founder of Manitoba, whom Macdonald had executed as a traitor.
More recently, it has been frequently splashed with red paint as his treatment and policies toward Indigenous people, particularly the establishment of the residential school system, has come under increased scrutiny.
On Saturday, the statue was pulled to the ground by a small group of protesters at the end of a demonstration calling for the defunding of Montreal police.
The force of the fall separated the statue’s head from its body.
Politicians from all corners have condemned the vandalism — including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Quebec Premier François Legault, who said Monday the monument would be repaired and returned to the same location.
That decision, however, appears to be out of their hands.
The city hasn’t yet said what it plans to do with the statue — whether it will be restoring it to the same spot in Place du Canada, adding a contextual plaque, or putting it in a museum.
Catherine Cadotte, a spokersperson for Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, said Monday the city would take “some time to reflect on the future of this statue” and consult with “partners and experts.”
A debate across Canada
Statues of Macdonald have been the target of activists in cities across Canada in recent years. Activists say honouring him is out of step with the push for racial justice.
Jessica Quijano, a co-ordinator at the Native Women’s Shelter who spoke at the Montreal demonstration in support of defunding the police, said she was surprised when the statue came down, but not disappointed.
She blamed the incident on a lack of government action despite calls to take down the statue, including a petition with more than 46,000 signatures.
“There could have been many opportunities for the government to acknowledge the trauma and the pain that John A. Macdonald has done,” she said.
The toppling of the statue, she said, “speaks volumes to how people are feeling.”
“It also speaks to how, sometimes in movements, there are instances of civil unrest,” she added.
The city was more proactive in the case of another historical figure, Jeffery Amherst, a British general who advocated using smallpox blankets to kill Indigenous peoples.
Last year, it changed Amherst Street to Ataken Street, which symbolizes fraternity and peace in Kanien’kéha, the Mohawk language.
But the case of John A. Macdonald, given his place in Canadian history, is likely to be more delicate.
What’s to be done?
Michael Rice, a historian with the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board and a Mohawk from Kahnawake, south of Montreal, favours putting the John A. Macdonald statue back, even if the prime minister was a “complicated” figure who had “many flaws.”
In his view, removing statues and plaques of figures like Macdonald means the country’s history, however checkered, will be lost.
“We’ll have nothing to debate,” he said. “The city needs to discuss what is going to be the policy, because if they allow people to take down statues without any type of debate, I think that opens up a dangerous precedent.”
Emilie Nicolas, an anti-racism activist and columnist with Le Devoir, suggested on Twitter that the statue be put in a museum, without being repaired.
“If you don’t want history erased, you should not want contemporary history erased either,” she wrote.
“Let it be a site for dialogue around founding myths, oppression, division and reconciliation in Canada.”
Dinu Bumbaru, the policy director of Heritage Montreal, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the city’s architectural and cultural heritage, called this weekend for an “educated public discussion” around the city’s landmarks — “not vandalism or similar executions.”
“And Montreal deserves more monuments to add new voices. Not less.”