The statue was damaged during a weekend protest organized by the Coalition for BIPOC Liberation

Canadian politicians advocate fight for equality but condemn the toppling of controversial statues

The statue of Sir John A. Macdonald lies in two pieces at the base of the monument from which it was pulled during demonstration by the Coalition for BIPOC Liberation in Montreal Saturday August 29, 2020. John Mahoney / MONTREAL GAZETTE

EDMONTON — In the days after protesters in Montreal tore down a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald, decapitating it in the process, the statue debate has once again landed at the feet of Canadian politicians.

On Monday, Prime Minister , who was in Montreal for an announcement on vaccines, was asked about the statue, and he condemned the damage.

“Those kinds of acts of vandalism are not advancing the path towards greater justice and equality in this country,” Trudeau said.

The statue was damaged during a weekend protest organized by the Coalition for BIPOC Liberation.

Since then, Quebec Premier François Legault called for the statue to be replaced, and Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante also condemned the damage.

“We must fight racism, but destroying parts of our history is not the solution,” wrote Legault on Twitter in French. “Vandalism has no place in our democracy and the statue must be restored.”

The Montreal Gazette reports the statue will be restored and the city will consult with heritage experts about what to do next.

“Some historical monuments, here as elsewhere, are at the heart of current emotional debates,” said Plante in a statement on Twitter. “I reiterate that it’s better to put them in context rather than remove them. I am also in favour of adding monuments that are more representative of the society to which we aspire.”

It’s time politicians grow a backbone and stand up for our country

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney also leapt to offer the Alberta legislature as a home for the statue, if Montreal opted not to reinstall it, arguing it was “vandalism of our history and heroes” in a series of tweets on the weekend.

“He was an immigrant who suffered unimaginable personal trauma throughout his life, which he overcame to forge an enormous country out of divided factions,” Kenney wrote on Twitter. “It’s right to debate his legacy and life. But it is wrong to allow roving bands of thugs to vandalize our history with impunity.”

The new Conservative Party of Canada leader, Erin O’Toole, who made a point in his campaign leadership speeches of pointing out his strong stance on statues and renaming of buildings, also weighed in: “Canada wouldn’t exist without Sir John A. Macdonald. Canada is a great county (sic), and one we should be proud of. We will not build a better future by defacing our past.

“It’s time politicians grow a backbone and stand up for our country.”

The weekend event, in which the statue was toppled by protestors in the rain, was actually just the most recent time the Macdonald statue has lost its head; Quebec sovereigntists cut it off in 1992, and the statue has been damaged and doused with paint several times over the years in a city known for its protest movements.

The tearing down of the statue comes during a time of racial protests in North America, that has led to a public re-evaluation of historical figures, including Sir John A. Macdonald. Canada’s first prime minister was an architect of the country, but he was also behind the early treatment of Indigenous people, the residential school system and oversaw Louis Riel’s execution

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Similar movements in the United States have led to the toppling of Confederate presidents and generals and much controversy about the veneration of men who defended a country built upon slavery. In June in the U.K., a statue of Sir Winston Churchill was vandalized in Parliament Square, Westminster, U.K.

Academics have entered the debate about what the destruction of statues does to the understanding of history.

“The past is not a melodrama but more often a tragedy,” writes Victor David Hanson, a conservative historian, in National Review, a conservative publication. “Destroying history will not make you feel good about the present. Studying and learning from it might.”

Other historians, including Benjamin Forest and Juliet Ellen Johnson of McGill University, have explored options used in post-Soviet states, such as relegating statues to cemeteries or statue parks. Some places, such as Moscow, “de-politicizes Soviet-era monuments by treating them as objects of art,” Forest and Johnson write. In Lithuania,  one park “uses the statues to speak directly to Soviet-era repression.”

The monuments’ exile, however, represents a physical acknowledgment of their problematic nature, they write in the journal Cultural Geographies. “Instead, the moved monuments are constant reminders of a painful history, albeit less centrally placed.”

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