The city of Victoria is removing a statue of John A. MacDonald and replacing it with a plaque. This is an important step towards recognizing historic injustices and preventing our narratives from papering over those injustices.
Contrary to what some may argue, this action isn’t erasing history as nothing is being erased; the plaque replacing the statue is still informative and available for anyone to read. The change, however, is that while a plaque is still paying some small respect to MacDonald, it’s not as celebratory as a statue. This matters since a statue isn’t a nuanced celebration of a specific achievement of an individual, but rather a blanket celebration of everything that person has done.
When we make statues of someone we put them on a pedestal; we say that this person is worthy of praise not just now but in the future. It’s important then that as a society we accept that we sometimes should take down statues, realizing in retrospect that the people we venerated before have also done things worthy of condemnation. This is because as time passes, moral values change. Regardless of the values held at the time a person lived, the moral values of the contemporary moment are more relevant.
A person in 2018 regarding the statue is being told to make a value judgment, specifically that the person depicted by the statue was great. So when we realize, given our morals, that the person we have on showcase actually isn’t all that good, it behooves us to remove that statue. Otherwise, we become complicit in erasing those injustices that person committed, since we’re saying that despite the fact that we contemporarily condemn what they did, this person is still great.
Additionally, while it’s indeed true that we should always learn our history, we shouldn’t always celebrate it. At some point, the great deed someone has done is just so distant in time that others more relevant to our own time become more worthy of praise. So yes, John A. MacDonald was our first Prime Minister and an important part of Confederation, but is it as necessary or even relevant now to celebrate Confederation as much as say, Beverley McLachlin, Canada’s first woman Chief Justice of the Supreme Court? Nothing lasts forever, and as such, nothing should be celebrated forever either. Even if you ignore the larger issue that these statues depict someone who was an advocate of genocide, at least accept that you can’t praise someone for being the first Prime Minister forever.
Removing statues such as the one in Victoria is part of the many steps towards reconciliation. We can’t both celebrate someone who orchestrated genocide while still condemning that genocide. While there may still be some regressive politicians that want to make this out to be an attack on Canadian values, there is nothing more Canadian than recognizing a wrong and trying to correct it to create a more inclusive environment.