The initial culprits this time – the statue has been targeted before – justified their behaviour at an otherwise peaceful protest as follows:
“We offer this action in solidarity with the Indigenous peoples of Tio’tia:ke, Turtle Island and across the globe, and all those fighting against colonialism and anti-Blackness in the struggle for a better world.”
Although I sympathize with their desire for a better world, I can’t imagine how they thought their actions would help get us there.
For one, the vandalism took attention away from the original intent of the demonstration – a call for police reform.
Second, although I don’t claim expertise in this area, it appears to me that the deliberate violation of Canadian law runs counter to the spirit of reconciliation.
As I understand it, Gusweñta, or the Two Row Wampum treaty (the meaning of which is meant to guide the management of the relationship between Indigenous peoples and European settlers) stipulates that “each nation will respect the ways of the other as they meet to discuss solutions to the issues that come before them.”
Third, the protestors prompted, as could have been expected, a barrage of puerile and unnecessarily partisan responses that have inflamed matters further.
When pressed, the prime minister was less confrontational, noting that “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.” But he stopped there, never offering a way ahead.
At least Premier Jason Kenney proposed a solution – Alberta would repair the statue and have it installed in Edmonton on the grounds of the provincial legislature – but his pledge to mobilize the power of the state against what he called “roving bands of thugs” was (quite understandably) interpreted by critics as just another act of colonialism.
The lack of empathy from all sides is disturbing.
Those claiming to seek an end to systemic discrimination need to understand that to effect lasting change in a liberal democracy you must appeal to citizens from across the political spectrum.
Resorting to deliberately provocative, illegal, activities when you aren’t satisfied with the pace of change will only set your cause back.
At the same time, passionate defenders of Sir John A. Macdonald’s political legacy must stop underplaying the extent of the trauma caused by the residential school system.
It is unreasonable to ever expect survivors of residential schooling to privilege the prime minister’s critical role in negotiating Confederation and managing our country in its early years over his callous approach to Indigenous peoples and communities.
How do we move forward?
I’m partial to the suggestion that the statue be restored and placed in a museum (or statue park) where Macdonald’s legacy could be properly contextualized and debated.
In the longer term, we might draw lessons from the experience of Yale University.
In 2016, when it faced calls to rename campus buildings that memorialized divisive figures, Yale formed a Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming.
Its final report – a product of four months of consultation and reflection – is thoughtful, inclusive, and thorough.
I recognize that the emotions in the case of Macdonald run particularly deep, and that statues aren’t names on buildings, but unilateral, deliberately divisive “solutions” get us nowhere.
Surely, we can do better.
If you’d like to read some good Canadian political history, check out the work of Penny Bryden and Matthew Hayday. Bryden is working on a much-needed history of the Prime Minister’s Office. Hayday is writing a biography of Joe Clark. On Indigenous issues, I’m consistently impressed by the work of Douglas Sanderson.
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