Today is the day on which the political leaders of Victoria, B.C., intend to remove a larger-than-life statue of Sir John A. Macdonald from the entrance to the city hall. A committee on aboriginal-latecomer reconciliation had pointed out last year that John William Dann’s 1982 effigy of Macdonald was creating some ill feeling among First Nations citizens visiting the hall to do business with the state. As one city councillor pointed out when the removal of the statue came before council for a vote on Thursday, Canadians of Chinese descent who know of Macdonald’s racial views and policies weren’t completely comfortable with his brooding bronze presence either.
The council agreed to remove the statue by a seven-to-one vote. The dissenter, Geoff Young, expressed concern that the wider public had not had much chance to participate in the discussion of the statue. He did not defend Macdonald as such, which will disappoint those who have a hair trigger when it comes to the revision of political symbols, but he suggested that the debate should not have been a matter left to a committee and the council alone.
The mayor of Victoria, Lisa Helps, emphasized that the removal of the statue is “temporary,” promising to “find a way to recontextualize Macdonald in an appropriate way.” This suggests that the statue will find a home somewhere, perhaps even in its accustomed place, but will have to be accompanied by a sanitizing “This was a bad, racist guy despite having led the creation of our federation” text inscribed nearby.
All of this gives me a chance to rehearse my inconveniently unclassifiable views on the subject of revisionist iconoclasm in public settings. Part of me is sympathetic to the anti-revisionist case. Even if Victoria took a year with this decision, a year is not a long time to reconsider an act of commemoration that was intended to be permanent in the first place. Any one generation, let alone a small group within it, ought to be hesitant in removing public statuary — doubly so, perhaps, if you are doing it “temporarily” but without a deadline for its return. Putting objects of built heritage in storage is the easiest way for a government to demolish them, through neglect, on the sly.
With that said, I could be convinced to pick up a hammer if there is to be a general smashing of statues of politicians. No city or country really has a shortage of people to honour whose contribution to humanity is unambiguously and uncontentiously positive. Those who exercise political power, even in a democracy, rarely fall into this category. If we were building a country from scratch, I would suggest we start building statues to those who excel in the realm of pure thought — physics, math, music, scholarship — and work “down” through artisans, philanthropists, innovators and entrepreneurs.
Once we’re past the tradesmen who did good work and mentored the young, and we have made modest busts or reliefs of everyone who just worked to make a neighbourhood nicer …read more