The harrowing discovery of an unmarked mass grave containing the remains of 215 Indigenous children on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School has reinvigorated discussion and protest over monuments that celebrate historical figures that were responsible for orchestrating genocide against Indigenous peoples.
John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, introduced residential schools in 1883 as institutions designed to “kill the Indian in the child,” an aim that amounts to cultural genocide. As historian James Daschuk points out, Macdonald also orchestrated policies that intentionally induced famine amongst First Nations of the Prairies, leading to mass deaths by starvation and disease. These policies were genocidal and illegal, even by the standards of Macdonald’s own time and context. They set in place a matrix of systemic, cultural and physical violence that characterizes Canada’s relationship with First Nations people to this day.
As settlers on Indigenous land, Canadians are all Treaty People, but our actions continually reveal us to be broken treaty people.
Monuments celebrating figures like John A. Macdonald contribute to a national narrative of erasure and forgetting that allows legacies of racist violence against Indigenous people to continue. The outrage and protest directed towards such monuments is part of an important healing process that is engaged every time the monstrously unjust and tragic dimensions of Canada’s relationship with First Nations peoples is made newly apparent. These feelings are powerful, but also momentary. They are easily replaced with whatever new atrocity is delivered by next week’s news cycle. For lasting and meaningful change to happen, we need to think beyond the reactive desire to tear down a statue or deface a monument.
While such responses are justified and important, we must resist the temptation to think that, with the removal of some statues, hundreds of years of violence against Indigenous peoples will be corrected.
Historical monuments to racist leaders and practices were designed to be vehicles of ideological erasure and forgetting. Simply removing them, however, risks furthering this process under the guise of addressing it. As settlers on Indigenous land, we are all implicated, in differential and complex ways, in the reproduction of centuries old legacies of violence and oppression. Processes of healing and reconciliation are equally complex, but they all must start with humbly cultivating new and different relationships with First Nations people.
The persistence of offensive and challenging historical monuments is an important opportunity to engage in meaningful, inclusive discussions over how to make amends for centuries of abuse.
Working together with Indigenous people, with artists, activists, politicians and ordinary folks, how might we re-contextualize monuments, institutions and public space itself in ways that meaningfully further practices of reconciliation? In the process of asking and answering this question, we might find new opportunities to learn what it means to truly be Treaty People.
Simon Orpana is an artist, graphic novelist and educator who lives in Hamilton, Ontario on the traditional territories of the Erie, Neutral, Huron-Wendat, Haudenosaunee and Mississaugas. It is land covered by the Dish with One Spoon Wampum, which is an agreement between the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabek to share and care for the precious resources of the Great Lakes.
If you'd like to read more on this subject, you can read Paul Burrows' review on James Daschuk's Clearing the Plains for Briarpatch Magazine.
UPDATE: The statue of Egerton Ryerson, widely known as an architect of the Residential School system, was vandalized and toppled over last weekend, June 6, at Ryerson University.