The highly controversial John A. Macdonald statue that once sat outside Victoria’s city hall is going back to the society that gifted it to the municipality decades ago.
Victoria city councillors voted unanimously during a committee of the whole meeting Thursday to return the statue to the Sir John A. Macdonald Historical Society.
The city will now be responsible for shipping the statue to a storage facility belonging to the society in Ladner. In exchange, the Sir John A. Macdonald Historical Society cannot allow it to be displayed on Vancouver Island without the expressed approval of the local First Nation whose territory it would be located.
Should the society choose to display it publicly, they would be expected to use their “best efforts” to provide the “fullest possible educational and contextual information” about John A. Macdonald, his policies and their consequences. Furthermore, any public statements made by the society or its donors about the statue would need to be “highly supportive” of the reconciliation process, according to conditions that were agreed upon by the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations and the city.
The statue of Canada’s first prime minister was placed at city hall in 1982 and removed in August 2018 after councillors, following consultation with Indigenous people, voted to take it down as a gesture toward reconciliation. Its removal became a highly controversial issue — Mayor Lisa Helps later apologized for not including residents in the decision to remove it — locally and nationally, with many praising the decision and others decrying it.
According to a city staff report, the decision to return the statue comes after the Sir John A. Macdonald Historical Society reached out to Mayor Helps earlier this year asking for it back. The society, the report notes, indicated that Canada has “entered a new era of reckoning with its history” following the discovery of 215 gravesites near the Kamloops Indian Residential School and that it is unlikely the statue will ever be displayed publicly anywhere in Victoria and had no desire to see it become a “lightning rod” for reconciliation.
“Since last summer, the historical figures responsible for designing the residential school system have come under deeper scrutiny as we learn more about our history as a country. Sir John A Macdonald is one such historical figure,” the report reads.
During Thursday’s meeting, Coun. Charlayne Thornton-Joe said she was pleased that the society has agreed to take it back with conditions. She also said the issue of John A. Macdonald isn’t just an Indigenous issue, pointing out that Canada’s first Prime Minister not only held incredibly racist views towards Asians but that The Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 was implemented while he was in office.
“A lot of people, when you talk about history, they see Sir John A. Macdonald statue removal as something to do with just do with Indigenous people and just truth and reconciliation,” she said.
Coun. Sharmarke Dubow said the removal of the statue isn’t anti-Canada.
“We have to understand that racism and injustice is bigger than removing the statue and racism is built in the fabric of our society and we, including myself as a Canadian, still benefit from colonialism,” he said, adding. “History is very complex and it’s OK …. as a community to feel uncomfortable to be challenged.”
Coun. Ben Isitt said coming to terms with “our history” and how we remember the past is challenging for every generation but believes society is moving in a more truthful and honest direction regarding Victoria’s own historical past and the “Canadian story.”
“John A. MacDonald and his contribution needs to be remembered … but I think blindly honouring the individual is not an appropriate way to commemorate that period of Canada’s past,” he said.
Isitt said while he’s supportive of the decision to return the statue, he believes council’s focus shouldn’t just be on place names or statues.
“There needs to be a lot more done than issues around statues and even place names,” he said. “Ultimately, our objective has to be substantive justice for everyone in the community and removing discrimination on the basis of class or ethnicity or other barriers but I think coming to terms with discrimination in our past is a part of that pathway towards a just community.”
Meanwhile, Mayor Helps said the process for the statue’s return has been “very good.” She also said it isn’t clear just how much shipping the statue to Lander will cost, but that it would be cheaper than re-installing it somewhere in the city.
Macdonald was Canada’s first prime minister, serving from 1867 until 1873. He was prime minister again from 1878 to 1891. He was also the MP for Victoria from 1878 to 1882.
It is not clear when the statue will be returned to the Sir John A. Macdonald Society.
With files from Jeff Lawrence