Walking through a Building on Fire

NDP MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq Globe and Mail, Thursday June 17th

On June 17th, two articles were published that really struck me. A third piece, written in the winter of 2019/20 by Dr. Timothy Stanley about the removal of Sir John A. Macdonald’s statue in Victoria in 2018 acts as an important piece that links these two events. They all have to do with belonging – who belongs here and who is honoured and respected. Who feels like the ‘other’ and whose history do we understand.

It seems to me that we are going through a radical transformation right now in Canada. The first article about Mumilaaq Qaqqaq’s decision not to run again in the next election doesn’t seem to have received too much attention, but I think it is really important. She talks about the House of Parliament as being an ‘uneasy place’

It’s a place where they make laws that result in Indigenous death and result in turmoil for a lot of our communities. I feel that.

Globe and Mail June 17, 2021

There is a connection to this very brave declaration by this Inuit lawmaker and the movement to roll back the symbols of racism and genocide from our places of honour and prominence. To me, it is intolerable that a young woman who represents all of Nunavut should be stopped by security guards while in the Parliament Buildings and questioned whether she really belonged.

The statues of John A. MacDonald really do not belong – if there is a lingering spirit of the man circling around the statues and buildings with his name on it, it is this spirit who should feel like it does not belong.

The CBC article – Kingston to move Sir John A. Macdonald statue from City Park is significant because Kingston is seen as the home of Macdonald and many people feel that the removal of the statue offends their sense of community. Plans seem to be in play to move the statue to his gravesite also in Kingston. I have a better idea (not my own), but more about that later.

The article by Dr. Stanley is really important here. This statue removal he writes about took place in 2018 so we have gained a bit of perspective on what the removal means in Victoria, the community where it stood. His article Commemorating John A. Macdonald: Collective Remembering and the Structure of Settler Colonialism in British Columbia ( BC studies, no. 204, Winter 2019/20), available here, it an important read especially now.

There are so many issues circulating around Macdonald and the central role he has played developing the institution of Residential Schools in Canada. You would think that we could all get behind a rethinking of his place in our history, but we are a nation in conflict. We seem unwilling to understand the implications of colonial politicians like Macdonald.

It is not as simple as the removal of the statues of Confederate Generals from sites in the United States – even though this is not all that simple. MacDonald never made war on Canada, but you could easily say he did make war on the different Indigenous and Metis populations his government encountered.

One idea that Dr. Stanley explores is the whole notion that by removing statues of Macdonald we are somehow erasing history. This is usually said by people who really have a really poor notion of what history really is.

What we emphasize and retell changes over time. The history we look to tells us much more about the messages governments want put out there at a particular time. It has little to do with faithfully rendering a clear narrative.

The statue of former Canadian prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald is covered by a red sheet in Kingston, Ont. on June 11, 2021. On Wednesday, Kingston’s city council voted to move the monument to Cataraqui Cemetery. The city will also spend $80,000 for the transportation and installation of the statue. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

There are so many interesting ideas in Dr. Stanley’s article I encourage you to take some time to go through this. He does sum up early in the article the idea of ‘settler colonialism’ a label used to describe the opposition to challenging the traditional narrative that Macdonald, Ryerson, Cornwallis or Langevin were simply good public stewards doing the best they could with the resources at hand.

This form of colonialism exists today in Canada and is manifest in all those who are currently opposing the removal of Macdonald’s statues.

While the structure of settler colonialism is all too real for Indigenous peoples, for most settlers it is largely invisible until such time as monuments get taken away or dominant systems of representation get challenged. 

Stanley p. 2

The council debate in Kingston illustrates how far apart Indigenous voices are from those espousing a colonial settler mindset. Delegates against the removal used arguments including ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’ and that the removal of the statue was a harsh judgment of a historical figure, and that such a move would constitute “cancel culture.” (Kingston Whig Standard, June 16).

For sure there will be more of this type of talk as the statue is scheduled to come down this Friday ( June 25). It was the same in Victoria as Dr. Stanley quotes from a CBC report:

Matthew Breeden, reported as having travelled from Vancouver to protest, told CBC: “It’s part of our history I feel is being ripped right out and gutted down. I think that’s just terrible.” He continued: “They just pushed it right through – the public wasn’t allowed to have a say.”

John A. Macdonald Statue Removed from Victoria City Hall,” CBC News, 11 August 2018, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/john-a-macdonald-statue-victoria-city-hall-lisa-helps-1.4782065.  

An interesting side note, Doug Ford, then the newly elected Premier of Ontario called on Vistoria to send the statue to Ontario. In their official request they noted:

As a Father of Confederation and our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald holds a significant place in the hearts of many Canadians and should be honoured accordingly

Globe and Mail August 14, 2018

These reactions, especially about not having ‘our say’, really shows the state we are still in as a country. When we talk about ‘our’ we are still talking about colonial settler mentality. When we think again about Mumilaaq Qaqqaq , it becomes clearer how alienated she must feel being at the center of colonial power in Canada. The lack of any noticeable reaction to this story is telling. Our House of Parliament is not inclusive, it does not speak for all; it still speaks, as it did in the days of Macdonald for the colonial settler.

Sir John A. Macdonald’s grave, located in Cataraqui Cemetery in Kingston, seen here on Thursday. PHOTO BY JULIA MCKAY /The Whig-Standard

The new resting spot for the Kingston statue is supposed to be at his grave site at the Cataraqui Cemetery just outside of Kingston. There was no consultation with Indigenous groups about this, just a last-minute vote of council to move it to another place of honour.

This is not the right decision on what to do with the Macdonald statue. If we want to develop a holistic historical narrative, one where a young Inuit MP feels like she belongs, we need to do some radical retelling of the story of this land. First, when it comes to honouring people responsible for genocide, Dr. Stanley has a suggestion to pass along:

In this respect, the controversy over Macdonald shows that there is much work to be done in encouraging Canadians to come to terms with their own complicity in settler colonialisms and racisms. Here are two suggestions regarding what to do with Macdonald monuments. One comes from a man from the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan who has the unfortunate name of John A. McDonald. He suggests melting the statues down and making medals to give to residential school survivors: “He stole a piece of you, here’s a piece of him … you survived, and he didn’t, and let’s give it to every survivor of residential schools, everybody that survived the cultural genocide that he attempted.”

Stanley p.25

We are a building on fire, but many of the occupants are not smelling the smoke. We need to start with a new idea about what ‘our history’ is and at the same time stop honouring the men of power who have so much to answer for.