When the statues fall

A special report from La Converse about Indigenous figures who could replace current Canadian statues.

George Floyd’s death at the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis last month sparked worldwide anti-racism, and anti-police brutality marches and protests, where many public historical statues and monuments commemorating racist and colonialist narratives have been toppled and removed by protesters around the world. 

June 17, the statue of Christopher Columbus was vandalized in Parc Turin in Montreal. It was covered with red paint and graffitied with “BLM” (for Black Lives Matter). On June 15, the John A. Macdonald statue on René-Levesque Boulevard in Montréal was once again sprayed with paint and marked with the words “The RCMP rapes native women and kills native men,” just as a petition was circulating with 16 000 signature requesting the City of Montreal’s removal of this statue. A petition in circulation in Montreal is also requesting the removal of the statue of slave owner James McGill.

In the light of current events, Craig Commanda, an Anishnaabe student and artist explained that the very first Prime Minister of Canada was.

“The architect behind the RCMP, residential schools, and racist legislature that led to the colonization of the Canadian west,” he says. 

He considers that a statue commemorating this figure is a statue to white supremacy. He says; “Tearing down that statue is to tear down these ideas, in order to make space to grow a new world in its place.” 

According to Webster, also known as Aly Ndyie, who is an artist, and historian, Québec history is marred by the enslavement of 4185 people, of which three-fourths were Indigenous. He says that most of the streets in Québec are named after people who moved the colonial project forward. 

Two weeks ago, Robert Jago, a Montreal based journalist from the Kwantlen Nation in B.C. tweeted about being “worried” about the “wellbeing” of the Christopher Columbus statue in Montreal.

“All these people tearing down Columbus statues, I hope the Columbus statue at Parc Turin in Montreal is OK. It’s right here if you want to make sure it’s safe,” he wrote. 

In an interview, he entrusted that “those in favour of leaving these statues up argue that the accomplishments of the historical figures they represent outweigh their crimes and that they’re superlative to human history. I am certain that in future generations Columbus’ name will only apply to the crimes and atrocities that are associated with his legacy.”

When asked what could replace the statues of John A. Macdonald and Columbus, Jago replied that Canada was built by the strength of three Nations: the English, the French, and Indigenous Peoples, and he would like to see this reality reflected in public space. He thinks, however, that we are living in an era where bronze statues no longer support the weight of history, and that it’s time to move on to different ways of commemorating it.   

According to Ellen Gabriel, Kanienkehaka from the community of Kanesatake, the question of the importance given to human statues should be considered.

“It’s time to think beyond humans and start looking at the natural world,” she noted while reflecting on representations of Kanienkehaka history.  
 

If we were to leave these statues on their pedestals, is it enough to add a plaque with an explanatory text? This is what Cindy Blackstock, General Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada did. The professor of social work at McGill University worked with Ottawa’s Beechwood Cemetery, in 2017, to have a plaque installed recognizing and informing of Nicholas Flood Davin’s role in the residential school genocide, which was responsible for the suffering of several generations of Indigenous Peoples and the death of 4200 children. 

Jaime Morse, Nehiyaw / Michif of Indigenous Walks, in Ottawa, spends a lot of time looking at and explaining the history of statues and monuments in Ottawa in the context of her cultural work. At first she said she thought that problematic statues should be left in place, with added text, but also realized that they may as well come down because there is so much history around it. She explained that “statues are on pedestals, they’re a symbol of who’s running the town. They’re not really needed, they can be oppressive, and are an overbearing placement of power, where a young person who doesn’t see themselves in it can absorb a sense of inferiority. There is no obvious marker that this is unceded Anishinaabe territory. We need more opportunities for inviting different stories in particular places.”  

According to Wendat sociologist and art critic Guy Sioui Durand, colonial statues are reminders of society’s deep history.

“We are touching history. We can’t rewrite it. We pursue it, we take part in it, and we change it,” he says. 

He thinks that if we were to tear down the statue of Macdonald, it should be placed in a museum of the de-pedestalled.      

Leena Minifie, a Gitxaala producer and researcher for a docuseries on Indigenous history in B.C., explains that Indigenous history is simply not currently recognized.

“They are tiny and chosen, curated moments of Caucasian greatness. Recognition must be given for the people who contributed to massive change, who sacrificed, who are not sanctified by Britain. It’s time to even out the playing field,” she says. 

In Ottawa, there are a number of statues that honour Indigenous individuals who played an important role in securing trade and peace, like Joseph Brant, Tessout, and the nameless Anishinabe scout, as well as the National Monument to Indigenous veterans. There are 690 statues of figures of historical significance in Canada. Heroines.ca estimates that there are about 20 statues and monuments in honour of women across the country, of which four are Indigenous; The spirit of Beothuk in Newfoundland, Kateri Tekakwitha at St-Anne’s Basilica near Québec City, Shannen Koostachin in Liskeard, Ontario, and the statue commemorating Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls near the side of the Police Headquarters in Saskatoon, which was inspired by the story of Amber Redman, who was murdered in 2005.  

10 statues to replace John A. Macdonald, Christopher Columbus, and James McGill

Who or what could replace these controversial figures? Here are 10 figures or representations who should be honoured instead of John A. Macdonald, Christopher Columbus, and other colonialists, according to the individuals cited in this article.

Alanis Obomsawin

According to Craig Commanda, it would be well to underline the importance of Alanis Obomsawin, the first Canadian Indigenous filmmaker who, by the uniqueness of her voice, knew how to reach out to many people. 

Born August 31, 1932, Alanis Obomsawin is a multidisciplinary artist of Abenaki origins. Obomsawin is one of the most important Indigenous directors in the world. She directed, wrote and produced several documentaries on the culture and history of Indigenous Peoples. One of the most well-known is Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, the first of four documentaries on the Oka Crisis, in 1990, which won 18 awards, globally. The Abenaki filmmaker has a vast number of national and international honours, and in 2019, became a member of the Order of Canada, the highest distinction in the country.       

Murray Sinclair

Craig Commanda also suggests that honour should be given to Murray Sinclair, Indigenous judge and Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada.

For 25 years, Senator Sinclair served the Manitoba justice system. He is the first Indigenous judge named in Manitoba, and the second in Canada. He was co-president of Manitoba’s Public Inquiry on the Administration of Justice and Indigenous Peoples, as well as the President of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). At the head of the TRC, he participated in hundreds of audiences across Canada, which led to the presentation of the TRC report in 2015. He also participated in an intensive program that allowed for funding TRC activities, and which allowed survivors to travel to events organized within the TRC framework.      

Charlotte

For the purposes of replacing at least one of street names that bear the names of racists and colonialists, Webster proposes Charlotte’s name, a slave owned by Jane Cook, who lived in Ville-Marie and who, by her escape, put an end to slavery in Québec — including that of Indigenous Peoples. 

In 1798, Charlotte, Jane Cook’s slave, runs away after learning that her master wants to sell her. She is caught and brought before judge Monk, who consulted his law books and came to the conclusion that there are no laws concerning slavery in Québec. Monk refuses to sentence Charlotte and continues to reiterate his decision for each escaped slave who appeared before him. According to Webster, there are no existing images of her.     

Benjamin Chee Chee 

Jaime Morse would like to see Benjamin Chee Chee’s life commemorated. He was a prolific Ojibway artist who was separated from his mother at a young age. 

Kenneth Thomas Chee Chee, known as Benjamin Chee Chee, was a Canadian artist of Ojibwa descent, born in Temagami, Ontario. Chee Chee’s early life was troubled and he lost track of his mother, whom he spent many years searching for. He died at the age of 32 in prison.

Mary Two-Axe Early 

Ellen Gabriel would like to see the memory of Mary Two-Axe Earley honoured. She was very active within Indigenous and non-Indigenous women’s movements in Canada, and she had the law on the status of Indigenous women changed within the Indian Act.

Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) elder, advocate for women and children, human rights activist (born 4 October 1911 on the Kahnawà:ke reserve, QC; died 21 August 1996 in the same place). Mary Two-Axe Earley was a pioneer and architect of the Canadian women’s movement.

Dan George

Leena Minifie suggests erecting a monument to Dan George, who fought in favour of human and Indigenous rights with elegance, dignity, and respect. 

Chief Dan George is an instantly recognizable national figure to practically all Canadians over the age of forty. Born as Geswanouth Slahoot in 1899 on the Burrard Native Reserve near Vancouver, British Columbia. He was a chief, an Academy Award nominated actor, an orator, a raconteur, a spiritual leader, and an author of several works.

His name was forcibly changed to Dan George when he entered residential school, as was common practice in those days. Subsequently, after leaving high school, he held numerous jobs as a longshoreman, a construction worker, and even as a school bus driver. Dan George was chief of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation from 1951 until 1963.

James Bay Agreement (La paix des braves)

According to Guy Sioui Durand, it would be important to recognize twentieth century events.

In 1975, while Indigenous Peoples in Canada are subject to the Indian Act of 1876, the James Bay Agreement was signed. This modern treaty is based on land claims between the Cree, Naskapi, and Inuit, and the Government of Québec, which provides these nations with economic autonomy.  

The Meeting of Kondiaronk and de Calliere

Guy Sioui Durand considers that the meeting between Kondiaronk and Louis-Hector de Callière, both responsible for the signing of the Great Peace of Montreal of 1701 deserves a monument.

Kondiaronk, Grand Chief of the Wendats, born around 1649, played a pivotal role in the negotiations that led to the Great Peace of Montreal. His discourse on the 1st of August 1701, a harangue, in great Indigenous tradition, was decisive in determining peace. 

Defender of the City of Montreal, Louis-Hector de Callière was born in France in 1648 and was Governor General of New France. He made use of his exceptional diplomatic qualities during the peace talks with the First Nations that brought about the Great Peace. 

A moving monument

Ellen Gabriel, Leena Minifie, Robert Jago and Guy Sioui Durand proposed a contemporary monument.

This monument would weave Indigenous history, and their ways of life and worldviews, with art and technology. It would present a complex history that takes into account a multi plural narrative that also thinks beyond human experience to highlight the essential character of the natural world. By carrying collective histories, philosophies, and experiences of various nations, this monument would honour the spirit of Indigenous millennial culture. 

A monument commemorating the children who died in Residential Schools

Finally, I for one, would hope to see a monument dedicated to the 2800 children whose names appear on Residential School registries, and the 1400 who are not named. 

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