When a bronze statue of Sir John A. MacDonald was pulled down by anti-racism protestors on August 29, it wasn’t the first time Canada’s first Prime Minister lost his head. Erected in downtown Montreal in 1895, the statue has long been a target of vandalism. In 1992 it was decapitated on the anniversary of the hanging of Louis Riel. Since then it has been defaced with paint and graffiti many times.
Now the statue is toppled completely, its head snapped off. The Mayor of Montreal and other politicians condemned the vandalism, but it is unlikely that this will resolve the conflict. There is a small but growing chorus of voices insisting that someone who held racist views, and who was one of the architects of the Indian Residential School system, should have no public place of honour.
Another example of this type of conflict: On the university campus across the street from me is a statue of James McGill. His name also graces the university itself. But we know that McGill owned five slaves. Two of them were Indigenous children (each died at age 10) and three were adults of African descent. The question arises: Why would we honour the memory of slave-owning James McGill? Can we dismiss criticisms by saying that “he was a man of his time”? The questions raised in these two instances, and replicated in many others, must be vigorously and carefully debated.
What does it represent?
On April 9, 2003, a motorcycle mechanic named Kadhim Sharif al-Jabouri picked up a sledgehammer from his garage and went to nearby Firdos Square in Baghdad. There he began to smash the base of a Saddam Hussein statue that had been erected a year earlier to mark the Iraqi dictator’s 65th birthday.
Although al-Jabouri was a muscled body builder, the 12-meter bronze statue was only toppled with the aid of American Marines. They were part of the invading force that intended to overthrow the Hussein regime. The Marines tied a chain around the neck of the Hussein statue and pulled it down with a truck. Those images played across TV screens in the West almost two decades ago, and they are still vivid in my mind.
A curious follow-up to this story. Fifteen years after the fact, in an interview with NPR, al-Jabouri expressed regret at his part in toppling the statue. While he knew very well that Saddam Hussein was an oppressive dictator (al-Jabouri was himself jailed by the regime for a period of time), he pointed out that those who came after Hussein were much worse. His views of the dictator have been moderated through periods of political and cultural change.
In an important way, this Iraqi motorcycle mechanic expresses the tensions we experience today in relation to public monuments. It turns out that we also have a mixed relationship with the statues in our parks and gardens and public squares. We are asking: Does that statue belong in our community? Who does this sculpture represent? What does it represent? How has our society changed since it was first erected? Who gets to decide whether this sculpture stays or goes?
Surprised by a statue
In early July, my wife Becky and I went for a walk and took a different route than usual. Doing so, we wandered through the middle of the Loyola Campus of Concordia University. There, hidden behind the wing of a main building, was this remarkable bronze sculpture. It is the last monumental, realist work by the American artist Dave McGary (1958-2013) and is entitled “The Emergence of the Chief.” It stands 16 feet tall and, like many of his bronzes, is distinct for its use of vibrant colour. I was surprised to discover this extraordinary piece just 300 meters from our home. We had lived there for more than 10 years, and I had never seen it.
In response, I did what many of us do these days. I took a photo of the sculpture and shared both the photo and a description of the piece on my Facebook page. The response to the post was more than I expected. Within weeks it was shared 1,500 times and received over 800 positive reactions and 166 appreciative comments. These reactions have come from a diversity of people, but among them are a considerable number of Indigenous persons and organizations from across North America.
Aside from expressions of appreciation at its beauty, the most common reaction seems to be surprise. Surprise at a public and positive representation of Indigenous peoples and their heritage. Surprise at such a beautiful and public acknowledgment that the land upon which Concordia University sits is the traditional territory of the Iroquois Confederacy. The common thread of many comments (in the context of our debates over public sculptures) seemed to be: “Here is something we can get behind!”
‘This represents us’
The sculpture is described as follows on the nearby plaque: “Depicted is a Mohawk clan mother presenting a two-row wampum belt to a newly-elected chief, and instructing him in his moral and social responsibilities. The dark rows on the belt, illustrating a sailing ship and a canoe, underline the relationships between European settlers and First Nations peoples who sailed the same waters and treated each other with respect. The chief wears a head-dress based on one in the collections of the McCord Museum of Canadian History.”
In our cultural moment we are engaged in a debate over public representations of figures from the past. It strikes me that the positive and appreciative response to “The Emergence of the Chief” represents the kind of reaction that public monuments should generate. “This represents us. This tells the truth of who we are. This tells the truth of where we are.” Embedded in these responses are important judgments about truth and justice and aesthetics, and these always need to be named and discussed and debated. Yet I have been struck by the positive and even joyful responses to McGary’s sculpture. “This is a beautiful representation of who we want to be. Here is something we can get behind.”
Might I suggest that this response represents a good measure of whether or not a sculpture belongs in the public square today?