Statues and history
by Jon Malek
This month I’d like to discuss a topic similar to my recent three-piece series on history and commemoration by focusing on statues of historical figures and events. In July 2021, amidst Canada Day celebrations and protests over the ongoing recovery of victims of residential schools, a statue of Queen Victoria, prominently placed on the front lawn of the Manitoba Legislature Building, was toppled. In a further act, the head of the statue was later decapitated and thrown into the Assiniboine River. This event was the result of, and elicited, intense emotions over these recent recoveries which put a spotlight on painful memories for Indigenous peoples. Residential schools are not the topic of my article, but I encourage all to research this topic. As part of reconciliation, it is a responsibility of us all to better understand this issue, and I’ve attached links to some suggested readings below.
The issue I’d like to focus on is why the statue was targeted and some of the reactions to its the toppling. It was an action that not only divided Canadian society, but also led to deep disagreements amongst historians. Queen Victoria was the monarch of Great Britain and Ireland, and the head of the British Empire, from 1837 to 1901. Under her reign, India became a direct possession of the British crown after 1857, having previously been colonized and governed by the British East India Company. British colonial rule in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East grew while the British colony in North America expanded its colonial settlement in what is now Canada. She is held up by some as a figurehead of imperial grandeur, while for other significant portions of the world’s population she is the figurehead of imperial exploitation, land theft, as well as cultural and actual genocide. Because it was under her reign that residential schools grew and thrived in Canada, she is associated with this dark period in Canada’s history and is particularly a target of anger for Indigenous communities.
When her statue was toppled in July 2021, former Manitoban Premier Brian Pallister called the actions “failures of character on display” – one of many such dismissive comments about protestors from the former premier and others. Indeed, this action led to a debate of what was actually accomplished by the toppling of the statue. For those with the mindset of Pallister, it was no more than an act of vandalism. For others, it was misdirected anger, a sign of an inability to engage in public debate. For supporters of the protestors, however, it was recognized as an expression of anger and frustration. Instead of mere vandalism, the toppling of the statue should be seen as comparable to the removal of other monuments, such as that of Vladimir Lenin in Ukraine (1990s), Saddam Hussein in Iraq (2003), and current moves to take down Confederate monuments in the United States.
An immediate criticism of those who toppled the Queen Victoria statue, as well as those advocating removing monuments of other residential school figures such as Canada’s first prime minister, John A. MacDonald, was that removing a statue will not erase the history of what happened. This point is largely uncontested, but it misses the point. These actions are not aimed at erasing history; they are aimed at changing the conversation. Many in Canada have been asking, following the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada in 2015, why the architects of such attacks on Indigenous lives and cultures continue to be celebrated. The common response that they helped shape early Canada seem to ring weakly because, as a nation and as a society, we must decide what we commemorate, as that directly reflects upon us today. We can acknowledge that John A. MacDonald had a significant role in early Canadian history but must at the same time also acknowledge that he was an architect of Indigenous genocide, and that men like him also contributed to other racist policies such as Anti-Asian immigration policies. There is a growing proportion of society that recognizes this. The City of Winnipeg has established the Welcoming Winnipeg Commission that “will help ensure that the contributions, experiences, and perspectives of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit are reflected truthfully in our stories, historical markers, and place names” (https://winnipeg.ca/indigenous/welcomingwinnipeg/). Other actions are being taken in consultation with Indigenous groups as well, such as the renaming of Cecil Rhodes School and the discussions surrounding renaming Bishop Grandin Blvd.
But what does this accomplish? Will removing a statue or changing a school’s name erase the memory of the individual or event being commemorated? Not necessarily, but there is a difference between history and historical memory. The response to the claim that removing statues and other monuments will not erase the past or its effects is largely agreed upon, but one would add that it helps alter the focus of public commemoration and discussion. Sean Carleton, Assistant Professor at the University of Manitoba, has noted in reference to John A. MacDonald that keeping statues of the first prime minister in prominent places is equivalent to celebrating his wrongdoings. This is only exacerbated by the way he is portrayed in history and social studies classrooms, and even to newcomers first introduced to Canadian history. But the removal of statues – whether of Queen Victoria or John A. MacDonald – ignites a debate about those historical figures and encourages explorations into the history of these figures and the events with which they are associated.
As readers of this column have seen, what societies remember is more about what is selected to be remembered. Our discussion on Lapu-lapu’s statue in August brought up many issues under discussion here. Very few national societies today do not share in these experiences with public memory and these debates are complex and nuanced. In the Canadian context, commemorations of those affiliated with residential schools were often architects of early Canada. It is important to recognize the role that was played, but one must not fall into the trap of blindly celebrating it. Canada’s early history contains many aspects of which we should not be proud. The process of constructing Canada in the late 19th and early 20th century involved the creation of a white settler society, which was created through the land dispossession of Indigenous peoples, and racial exclusion of people from Asia, which prevented their immigration. The process of nation building is not over, and we are now living in a moment in Canadian history where its construction is continuing as new historical narratives gain both prominence and support from wider sections of Canadian society.
As these debates in Canada occur, especially over the past summer when the Philippines was in the midst of celebrating the Quincentennial of contact with Ferdinand Magellan and Christianity, I was reminded how we share some of these issues. Monuments, statues, and other remnants of Spanish colonialism colour the landscape of the Philippines. Some are old Spanish churches, now sites of Filipino faith and religiosity. Some are statues of Spanish figures, such as the Urañeta monument I referenced in August. Then there are sites such as Intramuros and Fort Santiago in Manila, where the colonization of the Philippines was administered, and Filipinos were detained and executed. Today, Intramuros is a tourist attraction with a dedicated administrative body. Its operation and maintenance – including the near complete reconstruction following the end of Japanese occupation in 1946 – can be interpreted as an act of reclaiming and owing that colonial past, which left lasting effects upon Filipino culture. This act of reclaiming and owning is more difficult with a statue of a figure like Queen Victoria, though. It is in this context that we should understand the push to remove statues of Queen Victoria, John A. MacDonald, and other historical monuments. Historical memory is dynamic, and it reminds us that each new generation will retell that narrative, not as an act of erasure, but as a result of demanding new answers.
Jon Malek received his PhD from Western University and currently teaches history at the University of Manitoba. He is working on a book manuscript on the history of the Winnipeg Filipino community.