A monument honoring Canada’s first prime minister in Montreal’s Place du Canada has long been a target of protestors. The statue of John A. Macdonald has stood in the park since 1895 and throughout the past several years, it has been painted red a several times. During a defund the police demonstration last Saturday, the statue was toppled and the first prime minister’s head was unceremoniously detached from his body in the process.
There were predictably mixed reactions to this act of vandalism in the hours and days that followed. Many people decried the removal of the statue as an assault on history, while others hailed the move.
Most Canadians learn in their high school history classes that Macdonald was Canada’s first prime minister and a key player in Canadian confederation and independence from Great Britain. He helped pave the way for the railway to expand from the east coast to the west. His portrait adorns the Canadian $10 bill.
He also had Metis leader Louis Riel hanged on the dubious charge of treason following the North West Rebellion in 1885.*
For the most part, if you dig no deeper than the government-approved history curriculum, this is about as much as you will ever know about Canada’s first prime minister – and you would probably be among the people who are outraged over the statue’s toppling (and resultant beheading).
But if you do dig into history, you will learn that Macdonald was one of the main architects of the Indian Residential School System, and the principal agent of Canada’s brutal policies regarding Indigenous peoples.
“When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian,” Macdonald said in 1879. “He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly impressed upon myself, as head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”
The goal of Canada’s Indian Residential School System was a slow and deliberate genocide – an effort rob Indigenous children of their language and culture. He also sought to extinguish any Indigenous title to lands, especially fertile lands.
“We should take immediate steps to extinguish the Indian titles somewhere in the Fertile Belt in the valley of Saskatchewan, and open it for settlement,” Macdonald wrote in 1870. ”There will otherwise be an influx of squatters who will seize upon the most eligible positions and greatly disturb the symmetry of future surveys.”
The fact that so many Canadians have expressed their outrage in social media that a “piece of our history has been vandalized” while remaining silent on Macdonald’s actual genocidal legacy only reveals the profound failure of the Canadian education system.
Statues don’t teach history, and their removal, whether by force or otherwise, doesn’t negate the history that they are purported to represent. What is abundantly clear is that Canada’s history curricula definitely need an overhaul.
* Editor’s Note: Louis Riel was a leader of the Metis, an Indigenous people with shared First Nations and European ancestry. He helped lead the Red River Rebellion of 1870, which led to Manitoba’s admission as a province of Canada. Riel sat as the Member for Provencher in the Parliament, and is often counted, along with John A. MacDonald, Georges Étienne Cartier, Joey Smallwood and others, as one of the “Fathers of Confederation.” He was, however, the only “Father of Confederation” to have been executed.
Photo courtesy of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.