Destructionists erupted with great cheer and jubilation in downtown Montreal as a statue of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, toppled to the ground.
Sculptor George Edward Wade’s 1895 work laid smashed, Macdonald’s body in one contiguous heap, and his severed head left to roll about on the promenade, until scooped up for some tasteless photos with members of the crowd.
The destruction led to statements of condemnation from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Quebec Premier Francois Legault, Montreal mayor Valerie Plante and numerous other politicians. In essence, each person echoed the same refrain about destruction of public property being a lawless activity – uncivilized some said.
There is irony in that point of them calling out lawlessness because the rally that drew people together was, in part, about defunding the police.
Around the globe, monuments to notable people in various chapters of world history have been removed, toppled or battered on the basis of societal acceptability, viewed through a 2020 lens. Distasteful aspects of the monument subjects not understood in their time are now looked at differently and negatively – often deservedly.
The abominable practice of the slave trade or participators in what we have now come to understand as cultural genocide stand as examples that draw the ire of protestors and those who would tear down monuments. The point is understood and valid.
If age begets wisdom, we can only admit to being old enough to understand that life and problems have innumerable twists and turns. Issues aren’t always black and white, right and wrong. It would be great of course, if world problems were that easy – life would be far simpler with less acrimony.
It has been suggested many times when these monument debates surface that despite their checkered pasts, these sites and sculptures offer an opportunity to talk about history in a more meaningful sense.
It would take an organized effort to catalogue these sites and determine an acceptable interpretation of the subject’s attributes and shortcomings. That challenge is something we see as achievable and would provide a positive time of collaboration as disparate views are shaped and formed into a common understanding.
Sir John A. was our first prime minister. He had a vision called Canada and was a father of Confederation. These are indisputable facts that can be placed into context with unsavoury aspects: residential schools, expropriation of land, exploitation of Chinese nationals forced to work on the railways.
Macdonald was the not the first leader in history, nor will he be the last, to gain advantages at the expense of minority groups or peoples. While the phrase has been repurposed too many times to count, ignoring history and failing to truly understand lessons learned, societies risk falling into the same traps again.
While there may be a moment of satisfaction witnessing likenesses battered and destroyed, left in the wake of that type of vigilante justice is nothing – just an empty bulwark with no reminder or bookmark to the chapters of history we desperately need to understand if we are to move forward.