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JohnA

Dear Editor and Mr. Miller

On August the 13th I read a letter written to the Hub by Larry Miller, MP. He expressed that he was "truly shocked and appalled" by the recent decision of Victoria City Council to remove a thirty-five year-old statue of John A Macdonald from the front steps of City Hall and relocating it to a local museum where it can be better contextualized.

I have the great privilege of splitting my time between Mr. Miller's riding - my home - and the City of Victoria - where I study and work. And I was not in the slightest bit shocked, neither was I appalled by this decision. Because I understand the context in which it was made.

Perhaps it is simply a matter of distance making contextual information harder to access, but Mr. Miller's letter makes it seem that this decision was taken on a whim. The facts are something much different, however.

Council's decision to remove the statue came as the result of a year-long consultation process with the local Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations. Indeed, the request for the removal of the statue emerged as part of a long-standing dialogue between these parties about actions towards reconciliation that are within the City's jurisdiction.

The reason for the removal is quite clear: all residents of Victoria - both Indigenous and not - have to visit City Hall on occasion. Since the early 1980s this has meant that Indigenous people have had to pass a statue that offered no explanation as to why it was celebrating a man who, to them, stands primarily as the architect of a system of genocide that killed thousands of Indigenous children, that shattered families, devastated cultures, and the effects of which are still felt to this day. Mr. Miller's own government was forced by a class-action lawsuit to acknowledge these truths on the floor of the House in 2008.

In addition to this, there is also the passing grotesquery that City Hall is located on the edge of Victoria's historic Chinatown. The statue of Macdonald has, for thirty-five years now, been glowering over a community built by people who were brought to Canada to build the Pacific Railway in near-slave conditions, but whom Macdonald himself said were a threat to the "Aryan character" of the whites-only Canada that he envisioned.

Mr. Miller's letter implies that removal of this statue may cause us to "to ignore and eliminate" the historical legacy of Macdonald. A comment that bears two responses.

First, both as a resident of Victoria and as a teacher, I can say with absolute clarity that the educational value of this particular statue - but likely of public statues more generally - is quite minimal. If it exists at all.

Not once in my own education, nor in the education of my students, can I recall any memories of us gathering around the feet of a cold bronze humanoid to be given substantive history lessons. Such lesson are contained in books, in films, museums (such as the one where Macdonald will be moved to), or in oral story-telling traditions. Macdonald will remain firmly emplaced in all those locations. Statues are meant to celebrate and commemorate. They teach very little.

My second comment is that - ironically, given his apparent concern for the matter - Mr. Miller's own grasp of the history surrounding Macdonald is somewhat tenuous. For instance, he makes no effort to cover in any detail either the bloody history of residential schools or Chinese labourers. Yet he suggests, rather boldly, that Macdonald built this country.

In the city of Victoria, as in Bruce-Grey, workers built this country. And those workers were Chinese, Indigenous, black, white, male, female, and members of the Queer community. Macdonald made himself comfortable and rich from their exploited labour. He built nothing concrete.

'But,' I can imagine Mr. Miller saying, 'Macdonald did provide the vision for the country.' 'Macdonald built the idea of Canada,' Mr. Miller might argue.

There again, a grasp of actual history is instructive. The Canada that Macdonald tried to build bears little resemblance to the one we see today.

First of all, clearly and thankfully, the Canada we live in today is not a white ethno-state, as Macdonald had indicated was his intention. To Mr. Miller's point that Macdonald had first proposed the vote for Indigenous peoples, this was a deliberately assimilationist policy that would have required the giving up of Indian status in order to vote. It was meant to make Indigenous communities disappear. Moreover, even his few sparse statements about extending the vote to women largely came during the Northwest Uprisings. Macdonald thought that giving the vote to white women would ensure electoral support for his campaign to subjugate the Métis.

There is still much further proof that his legacy has already been rejected. For instance, Macdonald's Canada was to be ruled almost exclusively from Ottawa. He imagined the provinces as having little more than municipal powers. Only through court rulings against Macdonald's vision have we arrived at a situation where the provinces are seen to have legitimate independence. This is something I'm sure Mr. Miller appreciates, given his own apprehensions about the present federal government.

Mr. Miller concludes his letter by writing that "progress is often times not a sprint, but a marathon." I've heard a similar sentiment put as: 'if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.'

As a proud resident of both Bruce-Grey and Victoria, I cannot think of a better way to go far than what Victoria City Council has shown in its year-long dialogue with the local First Nations. A dialogue that has beautified this city by removing a statue that venerated a man whose vision and continued legacy would have seen the deliberate exclusion and injury of many of the neighbours and friends that make this place what it is today.

They are the people worth building statues to.

Warm regards,
Phil Henderson

image: Mathew Brady [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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