Regina city council’s vote to remove Sir John A. Macdonald’s statue from a prominent city park is the latest in a trend of removing monuments honouring Canada’s founder as well as his name from buildings that leaves some historians and others concerned.
Brian Giesbrecht, a retired judge and a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, said he finds the push to remove statues “kind of dismaying.”
“Our history, it really defines us, and if we start erasing it, what does that mean, and what effect does it have on us?” he said in an interview.
“And what do we teach our children in school? Are we going to actually tell our children that John A. was a bad man, and we have to now take his statue down because he was a bad man? Isn’t that telling them that their country is no good?”
Giesbrecht says Canada’s first prime minister’s feat in laying the foundation for the country we know today was an extremely difficult accomplishment, and despite his personal failings, he is a true hero.
“To try to expect him to be a perfect person by our modern standards is just not a reasonable thing,” he says.
On March 31, Regina’s city council voted 7–4 to remove Macdonald’s statue from Victoria Park. It’ll be put into storage while public consultations are held on a new location.
The council agreed in 2016 to carry out the calls to action made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In the past few years, indigenous activists protested at Macdonald’s statue, calling for its removal on account of Macdonald’s role in initiating the residential school system and other indigenous-related policies.
A recent city administrators’ report said the current location of the statue “makes some Indigenous people feel unwelcome” in Victoria Park. The report said given that the park is “an important location for community building and a location of major cultural events, including National Indigenous People’s Day celebrations, it is important that the Park design be inclusive.”
At the March 31 meeting, councillor Bob Hawkins proposed an amendment to leave the statue in place while undertaking further public consultation on its removal, but he was voted down 6–5.
Hawkins told The Epoch Times that the process and results were flawed.
“Reconciliation has to be the product of a genuine, open-minded dialogue, and when you don’t have that, and we didn’t have that here, reconciliation is harmed. I hope we can move beyond that,” he said.
“I’m also disappointed, very disappointed, as a student of Canadian history, that a balanced picture has not been presented in this case of the record of Sir John A. Macdonald.”
Sen. Murray Sinclair, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said in 2017: “The problem I have with the overall approach to tearing down statues and buildings is that is counterproductive to … reconciliation because it almost smacks of revenge or smacks of acts of anger.”
Hawkins, an Oxford and Yale graduate with degrees in law, history, and economics, cited Sinclair to fellow council members. Because they were not compelled, he expected a negative result.
“For many people there’ll be anger, they’ll feel bitter about this, and it’ll push reconciliation back rather than forward,” he said. “I don’t think you build reconciliation by tearing down statues of prominent people.”
The Regina statue of Macdonald—whose political career spanned almost 50 years and whose greatest achievement was getting the Canadian Pacific Railway built—was erected during Canada’s centennial in 1967.
James Pitsula, professor emeritus of history at the University of Regina, said Canadians’ knowledge of their own history has faded since then, and “on the whole Canada does not have a strong sense of its history.”
“Most people … don’t have a clue about the National Policy of 1878, or the grand coalition of 1864, or the fight for responsible government in the 1840s and 1850s, the whole wrangling between French and English that Macdonald worked out with Cartier, the fear of American takeover of the West—the whole gamut of things that Macdonald was involved with,” he said.
“Because even after 1867, the whole country could have gone down quite easily. It was struggling, and he kept pulling it all together.”
Pitsula says Macdonald had the unique skill set required to make the constitutional concept of Canada real, including “an oily knack of deal-making and coalition-building.”
“He was able to get consent among the big movers and shakers, the big players, political and in business. He was able to get everybody on the same page more or less.”
Giesbrecht says Macdonald has been misjudged.
“One of the claims is that John A. Macdonald forced indigenous kids to go to residential schools. Well, that’s just plain false because attendance did not become compulsory for indigenous children until 1920. … Macdonald specifically said these children should not be forced to go to school because at that stage in history, it would have simply been too hard on a people who have no history of sitting in schools,” he said.
“Many of the progressive chiefs were asking for the construction of schools and for education, and particularly the teaching of English, and John A. Macdonald went along with them.”
Macdonald was also instrumental in Regina’s founding. He appointed Conservative MP Edgar Dewdney to his cabinet as indigenous commissioner of the North-West Territories in 1879, and also its lieutenant-governor in 1881. Their shared influence guided the railway and designation of Regina as the territorial capital in 1883.
At the March 31 meeting, city council accepted a recommendation to remove Dewdney’s name from a city pool, renaming it Buffalo Meadows Pool. A report by the city’s administration said Dewdney was “directly responsible for the development and administration of harmful policies toward Indigenous peoples.”
There are campaigns in other provinces to have Macdonald’s name removed from public schools. In 2017, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario adopted a resolution urging provincial school boards to consider this move. In November 2020, the principal of Sir John A. Macdonald High School in Upper Tantallon, Nova Scotia, announced that the school would be renamed to reflect inclusivity, especially regarding indigenous students.
As for statues, a statue of Macdonald was removed from outside Victoria’s city hall in 2018 as part of the city’s program for reconciliation with local First Nations. New calls for the removal of statues honouring Macdonald arose amid the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. On Aug. 29, 2020, after having been repeatedly vandalized, the statue of Macdonald in downtown Montreal was torn down by activists.
Giesbrecht worries whether the trend will stop at statues and names on buildings, or if “other symbols” of Canada’s history will also be targeted for removal.
“I think they’ll be after something else fairly soon,” he said. “It’s a bit depressing.”