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John A. Macdonald statue 'painful reminder' of colonialism: Victoria mayor

Last Updated Aug 8, 2018 at 10:38 pm EDT

A statue of Sir John A. MacDonald overlooks the Imam at Masjid Al-Iman, Ismail Mohamed Nur, as he speaks to supporters and to the city of Victoria and the Muslim community during a vigil to honour the victims of the Quebec City mosque shooting in Victoria, B.C., Tuesday, January 31, 2017. The mayor of Victoria says a statue of Prime Minister John A. MacDonald will be removed from the front entrance to city hall as a gesture of reconciliation with First Nations. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

A statue of former prime minister John A. Macdonald will be removed from the front entrance of Victoria City Hall as a gesture of reconciliation with First Nations, says the city’s Mayor Lisa Helps.

Macdonald was the first prime minister of Canada and Helps said he was also a “key architect” of the residential school system.

The decision, which must be approved by council, followed a year of deliberations and consultation with the local Songhees and Esquimalt chiefs and councils, she said in an interview Wednesday.

“For people who are Indigenous who are coming into city hall, who may have been in residential schools, or their moms or grandmas or dads or grandpas were in residential schools, this statue is a physical manifestation of that painful colonial history that they themselves or their families have experienced,” Helps said in an interview.

The decision to remove the statue is the first concrete action by the so-called City Family, made up of the mayor, two councillors, and Indigenous representatives, as part of city’s reconciliation program.

Council will receive the report Thursday recommending the statue removal, and Helps said she can’t imagine it will be rejected since council gave the group a mandate to pursue reconciliation when it formed last year.

While the statue is in storage, Helps said the city will continue a dialogue about how to tell a more complete story about Macdonald’s history that both celebrates his contributions as the country’s first prime minister at the same time as acknowledging the harm he caused.

In a post on her campaign website, she points to the following statement that Macdonald made in the House of Commons in 1883, as evidence of his harmful legacy and thinking:

“When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian.”

“It has been strongly impressed upon myself, as head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”

Although Helps has an undergraduate, master’s and partially completed PhD in Canadian history, she said she is ashamed that she was unaware of the Father of Confederation’s role in developing residential schools.

Helps said the city does not propose erasing history, but rather taking time to tell that chapter of Canadian history in a thoughtful way.

The statue will be removed Saturday and stored until an appropriate way to “recontextualize” Macdonald is determined, she said.

“History is always being retold and part of the act of removing this statue is the ability to tell a more fulsome history John A Macdonald played, both positive and negative, in the history of our country.”

A cleansing, blessing and healing ceremony will be held in the space after the statue is removed and a plaque explaining its removal will be installed in its place.

In the longer term, a piece of art representative of the Lekwungen culture, which includes both the Songhees and Esquimalt nations, will likely go in its place, Helps said.

Victoria isn’t the only government or institution reviewing its celebration of Macdonald. In August, an elementary teachers’ union in Ontario issued a call to remove his name from schools in the province. And in May, the Canadian Historical Association voted to strip Macdonald’s name from one of its top writing prizes.

Other historical figures have also come under scrutiny for their roles in the residential school system.

The Office of the Prime Minister and the Privy Council was known as Langevin Block until Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had it changed. Hector-Louis Langevin, another Father of Confederation, argued that a separate school system for Indigenous youth was needed to assimilate them into Canadian Culture.

Ontario’s public education system owes its beginnings to Egerton Ryerson, but he is also believed to have helped shape residential school policy through his ideas on education of Indigenous children. Indigenous students’ group and the Ryerson Students Union have called for Toronto’s Ryerson University to change its name out of respect for residential school survivors.