Victoria’s mayor will put forward a motion recommending the return of the controversial John A. Macdonald statue that once sat outside city hall to the historical society that gifted it some 50 years ago.
The statue of Canada’s first prime minister — placed at city hall in the 1980s — was removed in August 2018 after council, with input from local Indigenous people, voted to take it down as a gesture toward reconciliation.
First Nations celebrated the removal, noting that Macdonald oversaw the Indian Acts and established the residential school system that led to the abuse and deaths of many Indigenous children.
But some protested the statue being taken down, claiming it was “erasing history.” A plaque was left in the statue’s place explaining why the statue was taken down and that the city was “recontextualizing” Macdonald’s legacy in an “appropriate way.”
Four years later, the city is in talks with the John A. Macdonald Society to transfer the statue from its “safe and secure location” to the society’s designated storage facility in Ladner.
A motion from Mayor Lisa Helps to be discussed at an upcoming Committee of the Whole meeting notes the “widescale reckoning” of the genocide perpetrated through the residential school system, sparked by the discovery of unmarked burial sites at the former Kamloops Residential School in 2021, that has happened since the statue’s removal.
“In the summer of 2022, the Sir John A Macdonald Historical Society reached out to the mayor noting the paradigm shift since the discovery of the Kamloops graves,” Helps wrote in the motion. “The Society noted that the statue was unlikely to be repositioned in the city in the near future and that it didn’t want the Sir John A Macdonald statue to be a lightning rod for reconciliation.”
Helps said that in conversation with the society, the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations and the City Family, conditions laid out for the return of the statue to the society were deemed acceptable to all parties.
“The process of returning the statue just like the process of removing it is being done respectfully, professionally and with a lot of thought going into it,” said Helps.
Based on input from the society, Help’s motion recommends that the society not display the statue again anywhere on Vancouver Island without the “expressed approval” of any local First Nations, that any public statements it makes on the matter would be “highly supportive” of reconciliation and that it would not seek a place of public display.
If the society does seek to display the statues at a future date, it says it will make an effort to include “the fullest possible educational and contextual information” concerning Macdonald.
Chris Considine, a member of the Sir John A. Macdonald Society, says while the statue was originally given to Victoria to commemorate his time as an MP here, “times have changed” since then.
“The statue was removed, we’ve become all much more aware of Indigenous matters, and consequently with the removal of the statue it’s appropriate to try to find a solution that will bring healing and reconciliation,” said Considine.
Although Macdonald was the MP for Victoria from 1878 to 1882, he had never visited the city before his time as MP, and in fact never visited the city until after he was no longer the sitting MP, according to CBC’s All Points West. His first visit to Victoria was in 1886, after the railway was built.
He said there are “no plans or decisions” at this point to eventually display the statue somewhere else.
As for criticism that the society is also somehow “removing history” by putting the statue in storage, Considine disagreed, saying the society wants to help Canadians understand the history of the country.
“Both the goods and the bads, so we learn for the future,” he said.
The mayor’s motion will go before the Committee of the Whole next Thursday, Sept. 22.
-With files from CHEK’s Oli Herrera, and CBC’s All Points West