The Politics of Statues

As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to make its presence known in Canada and the United States, racist and colonial statues are increasingly being subject to the intense gravitational pull of the Earth. What kinds of statues and monuments are objectionable in Canada? What’s being done about it? And what do statues have to do with how we remember history? Team Advantage is joined by Sean Carleton, Assistant Professor in the Departments of History and Native Studies at the University of Manitoba, to discuss Nazi monuments, colonizing nation-builders who do genocide, and why it’s good and cool that statues of these figures come crashing down.

A transcript follows the break.

[intro music begins]

Kate: The Alberta Advantage is supported by listeners like you. Independent listener-supported media like this podcast is possible only thanks to the generous support of our listeners. If you think what we do is important, please head over to and support our work with a monthly donation.

[intro music ends]

Kate: Hello, and welcome to The Alberta Advantage. I’m your host, Kate Jacobson, and joining Team Advantage today we have Patrick —

Patrick: Allo.

Kate: Brendan —

Brendan: Hey!

Kate: And special guest Sean Carleton, who is the assistant professor in the Departments of History and Native Studies at the University of Manitoba. Sean, thank you for joining us.

Sean: Hi, thanks for having me! Long-time listener, first-time caller.

Patrick: [laughs]

Kate: Well, we are looking forward to today’s episode, which is going to be about the politics of statues. And, as the Black Lives Matter movement has really continued to make its presence known and to make demands, both in Canada and in the United States, conversations about statues and about commemorative monuments more generally have resurfaced. And, in the United States, much of this has to do with the presence of statues of Confederates and of slavers. Canada, however, also has its share of terrible statues of terrible figures, and, in this episode, we’ll be exploring what kinds of statues and monuments are sitting around Canada, why they’re a problem, and what is being done about it. We’re also going to attempt to get into the broader issues — that’s asking what a statue or a monument means and what it actually has to do with how we learn or remember history. So, to start off with, let’s maybe start with some monuments that set Canada apart from the United States — monuments to literal, actual Nazis.

Sean: Yeah. So, Canada recently received some international attention because someone spray-painted “Nazi war memorial” on a cenotaph located at Oakville St St. Volodymyr, a Ukrainian cemetery. Oakville is located about forty kilometers away from Toronto. Police in the area didn’t seem to understand the history of the monument or what it meant, and so initially investigated the vandalism as a hate crime. This warranted international news coverage like, “Canada Police Investigate Vandalism of Monument to Nazi Troops as Hate Crime.” That’s a good look. So it’s probably worthwhile explaining what this monument was, what it meant, and how it came to be. So let’s dig into the details a little bit. Very generally, we have to think of Ukrainian immigration in Canada in two periods: before World War II and after World War II. Immigration prior to World War II tended to follow the pattern of lots of European immigrants. They tended to come from working-class backgrounds. So they’re going to Winnipeg, for example — it has a Ukrainian labour temple that was built in 1918 and 1919. And a significant wave of Ukrainian immigrants came to Canada after World War II, however; and, because of the Cold War, Canadian immigration officials were mostly concerned with ensuring they weren’t letting in communists. And so this overriding concern on behalf of Canadian immigration meant that Canada let in some folks with pretty awful politics: folks with explicit anti-communist politics tend to have — how would we say this — sympathies with the other extreme end of the political spectrum.

Brendan: So, the Canadian government, in the period immediately after the war, cooperating with the British, admitted more than 2000 members of a Ukrainian division of the Waffen-SS in the year 1950, and about 1000 other members of the SS and Nazi collaborators came from the Baltic around the same time. And there were also collaborators who came from Croatia as well as Nazis who came from Germany. And there was a Canadian government commission that investigated this in the mid-1980s under pressure from Jewish organizations, and it didn’t really end up doing anything. It’s important to talk a little bit about the Waffen-SS because this monument in this cemetery in Oakville is a monument to members of the Waffen-SS, and there’s a complicated historical discussion about what it meant for people to be part of this organization. So the first and most obvious thing that has to be pointed out here is that this was a section of the SS. This unit, specifically, was personally visited by Himmler, and Himmler gave them a speech in which he waxed poetic about how much better off Ukraine was with Jewish population having been wiped out. And he casually referred to the fact that this body would be willing to probably kill the Polish population in Western Ukraine without any German help, and that was in fact something that was going on there. The recruiting posters for this unit proudly featured Hitler. Now, you might think that a record like this would stop people from getting into Canada, but in fact it was almost the opposite. Canadian historian Irving Abella said that one way that people could get into Canada — after World War II, people being selected out of the displaced persons camps in Europe — was to show the SS tattoo which proved that they were anti-communist.

Kate: And I think this goes into a larger issue about how the West, more generally, understand Nazism and understands the Holocaust. And that is to say that we’re taught about Nazism as an aberration to an otherwise-functioning system of liberal democratic capitalism instead of how I believe we should see Nazism — and fascism more generally — which is the inevitable conclusion of capitalism’s tendency towards crisis and, particularly the crisis that it experienced in the inter-war years. We’re also taught to see the Holocaust as a uniquely immoral evil that has no parallel anywhere else in the world, but also as the inevitable conclusion of European antisemitism in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. And I think it’s really important that the Holocaust, and antisemitism in Europe during the 20th century more broadly, are best understood as an expression of anti-communism. And not to get too into the weeds on this issue, but I do think it’s worth touching on — the really fucked way we’re taught about the Holocaust and about Nazism feeds into these issues around commemoration of Nazis, and also prevents us from being able to do the analysis to see parallels between what the Nazis did to Jewish people in Europe and what was done to colonized populations all across the world, and to see these as the expression of the same political tendencies and the expression of the same European race-making projects. It’s also worth noting, when we are talking about the 14th volunteer Waffen-SS — which, again, is the Galizien Division with the monument in Oakville — that soldiers from this same division actually bombed a Toronto Ukrainian labour temple. So it’s a really good example of showing how fascism is not only hostile to colonized peoples and to people that whatever particular variety of fascism you have has branded as sub-human, but also to organized labour more generally.

Joel: So, the idea to erect a memorial in Oakville emerged in 1981-1982, following which a committee was formed in 1984, and, by 1988, they had raised $88,650 for the memorial and inaugurated it in May 1988. And so the monument depicts a soldier wearing a stylized Cossack uniform hat. Behind the grand relief is a large Ukrainian trident and a black cross with a stylized symbol of the UPA, a raised sword with the words “Eternal glory to the soldiers of the UPA.” So: “For Ukraine, for freedom, and for the people,” and the years 1942-1952. The base of the monument carries the OUN commandment to which all members pledged to commit themselves: “Achieve a Ukrainian state or die in the struggle for it.”

Brendan: So, the opening ceremony for when these monuments were unveiled was saturated in the kind of rhetorical pomp that’s very characteristic of these exiled Ukrainian nationalist groups, glorifying — as they called them — fallen heroes, soldiers of Ukraine, victims of the Muscovite Satanical machine, and then thereafter — this is sort of supplemented — the monument that had just been put up was accompanied by this cenotaph to the Ukrainian Waffen-SS. And it carries inscriptions in Ukrainian, English, and French — a nice little bit of Canadian multiculturalism there — saying “To the fighters for the freedom of Ukraine, to those who died for the freedom of Ukraine.” On the top of the black marble cenotaph is a large cross with the coat of arms of the Galizien division of the Waffen-SS. And, believe it or not, this is not the only Nazi monument in Canada. I think, in a previous episode, there’s been some discussion of the monuments that exist in Alberta — for example, there’s the statue of Roman Shukhevych, who was one of the leaders of the collaborationit Ukrainian fascist current during the Second World War at the Ukrainian Youth Complex in Edmonton. That was put up in the 1970s. And there’s a whole side piece of the context here which has to do with how these Ukrainian nationalist organizations have actually played a role in influencing Canadian foreign policy in relation to the Ukraine, both during the Cold War and since independence, but that is something we can talk about another time.

Kate: So, monuments to Nazis being a bad thing that shouldn’t happen does not seem particularly controversial, despite the particularities of Canada that we’ve just described. What is even more controversial than that, then, is our domestic efforts at ethnic cleansing, genocide, and historical figures that participated in those projects and statues to those people. So, first up, I think it’s worth talking about someone extremely obvious — John. A MacDonald, who was Canada’s first prime minister. He’s had statues in Regina, Saskatchewan; Hamilton, Ontario; Baden, Ontario; Kingston, Ontario; Picton, Ontario; Queen’s Park, Toronto; Ottawa; Montreal; and Charlottetown, PEI. Sean, let’s say that someone listening to this podcast knows nothing about John A. MacDonald despite the fact that he was the first prime minister and that he’s on the Canadian ten-dollar bill, which I think I barely even knew. What are some good reasons for thinking that John A. MacDonald was perhaps not the greatest guy?

Sean: First, we need to remember that commemoration debates are really a matter of perspective. And I would find it pretty surprising that people in Canada don’t know anything about John A. MacDonald except for that he’s on the ten-dollar bill, because most Canadians — including myself — do learn about MacDonald in history and social studies class as being a bit of a nation builder, right? He’s a founding father of Canadian Confederation, he plays a really prominent role as a politician in bringing French and English interests together and supporting major infrastructure projects like the CPR, or the trans-continental railway, that was key to growing Canada’s capitalist settler society in the 19th century. So, much of Canada’s history education that is how people are taught about history, particularly at a young age, is designed to make people proud to be Canadian. So it’s unsurprising that much of what we learn celebrates MacDonald uncritically as a nation builder. So, even if you don’t get a lot, or remember a lot, from high school or social studies, you will probably remember MacDonald and think of him in that mould, right? He’s really the cornerstone of Canada’s nationalist mythology. Rightly or wrongly, he stands in for the country itself, and, in a way, he plays the role in Canadian history like someone like George Washington plays in the United States.

Kate: So, I did not grow up in Canada, but I did immigrate to Canada and became a Canadian citizen. And, when you become a Canadian citizen, you have to read some texts and brochures from the government of Canada and then take a test. Obviously, features like John A. MacDonald feature prominently in this kind of official version of Canada. And when I was studying for this test, I was eighteen, nineteen years old, I was struck by how lionized and valourized John A. MacDonald was in these texts and how much national myth-making was going on, not only in our education system, but also in the documents that we ask immigrants to this country to reproduce to be allowed to stay here and participate in Canadian society on a permanent and equitable basis.

Sean: Absolutely, and we need to remember that Jason Kenney played a pivotal role in designing what is called “Discover Canada,” which is the handbook for new immigrants to study to pass the citizens test, as you’re talking about. And we need to remember that it came in under Harper, but the Trudeau government basically adopted the same program, the same way of teaching history, which really emphasizes the mythology of Canada and the great man version of history that people like MacDonald play the role in creating a country — when, of course, things were more complicated. So, it is — it’s really about perspective, because the issue is that most people, either in social studies or history class or, if they’re new to Canada, in the Discover Canada citizenship guides, they encounter MacDonald as this nation-building figure; but, in reality, that’s a whitewashing of history, the deliberate lionizing of a more complicated figure who, to build Canada as the capitalist federation, did so through racist immigration policies and genocidal policies against Indigenous people. So MacDonald, from a different perspective, needs to be understood as not just a nation builder, but also a nation destroyer, particularly using genocidal policies against Indigenous people. So, for example, this is what you don’t learn in the citizenship guide or in history class when you’re young, that acquiring new territory and resources in the West saw MacDonald support going to war against the Metis and Indigenous nations, supporting the creation of the very stingy reserve system whereby the government forced Indigenous nations onto small reserves to clear the way for the railway (which was also largely built through imported Chinese labour) but then experienced racist legislation after that railway was finished. Also, to ensure that Indigenous people would move onto these reserves, MacDonald supported the use of starvation politics as a tool, right? He once said in the House of Commons in 1882, “I have reason to believe that the agents, as a whole, are doing all they can by refusing food until the Indians are on the verge of starvation to reduce the expense.” Here, he’s talking about indian nations, which MacDonald also played a role in creating this Indian Affairs management structure, a bunch of bureaucrats that were supposed to be managing, essentially, these genocidal policies. And people like historian James Daschuk have written extensively about this in recent years, and anyone interested can pick up his book Clearing The Plains, which is a fairly accessible history into that. But it’s not just starvation politics, right? He also goes openly to war against Metis and Indigenous allies in 1885 for control over what becomes Western Canada. He arrests and executes some of the leaders, including Riel. In explaining the objectives of this sort of heavy-handed nature, he once wrote in correspondence that he hoped that the executions after 1885 of these Indigenous leaders would — and this is the quote — “ought to convince the red men that the white man should govern.” So, also, after that, he authorized the pass system, which required Indigenous people to obtain a pass (like a hall pass, kind of) from the Indian agent to be able to leave their reserve. And he also used things like the Indian act to increasingly put pressure on Indigenous people, criminalizing cultural ceremonies like pow wows and potlatches. So we need to remember that MacDonald was the first prime minister, that’s true, but he also, at the same time, chose the portfolio for himself of Indian Affairs, the superintendent of Indian Affairs, he was the minister in charge; he deliberately went out of his way to choose that portfolio. Like Trudeau chose to be the Minister of Youth, MacDonald chose to be the Minister of Indian Affairs so he could more effectively bring about these genocidal policies and create Canada by destroying Indigenous nations. And he used that position for a number of different things, some of which I’ve already talked about — but perhaps most famously, in 1883, he was able to marshal his political clout to create the Indian residential school system and have it approved. And he continued to defend that system throughout his political tenure as an effective tool of removing Indigenous children from their parents and communities, as a way of assimilating Indigenous people but also disconnecting them from the culture that rooted them in the land that Canadians wanted to take, to be able to use to support a growing capitalist economy. And that system, of course, did not end, the residential school system did not end, until 1996. So, MacDonald played a role as a nation-destroyer, we just don’t learn about that; that’s not part of the popular mythology. So, he was a father of Confederation — he was also an architect of Canada’s ongoing genocide against Indigenous peoples and, for that reason, it would be pretty hard to talk about, or write about, Canadian history without discussing MacDonald. The question, more, is: how do we do that? Both as historians, like myself, but also the public: how do we talk about these complicated figures in the past? And I think that’s one of the key lessons about perspectives and objectives in commemoration, so I think that’s important to keep in mind with every figure we come across: how do we remember this person, and is only uncritically commemorating someone — putting them up on a pedestal, lionizing them, removing all of the controversial pieces — is that really the best way to remember the past and think about its usage in the present?

Brendan: In some ways, we’re sort of lucky in these debates in Canada, that they focus so much on the person who is unambiguously the founder of the country and we don’t get stuck in this sort of sidetracking thing where, in the United States, many of these debates about commemoration are about figures who were part of the Confederacy, which was a rebellion against the government of the United States. And so there’s this kind of liberal nationalist sidetrack that people can take, and they can say, “Oh, why do we have statues of these people when they were traitors and they were against the United States? And oh, also, they lost the war.” And there are people who find those arguments compelling — lots of white American liberals find those arguments compelling — but what they do is they reinforce liberal nationalism, and they take the focus away from slavery and from white supremacy and they put those things on people who are outside of the official history of the United States, which is completely inaccurate. But in Canada, we’re talking about people who are unequivocally integral to national history, and so I think it’s more difficult to come up with a kind of liberal nationalist smokescreen about why Canada’s national figures are maybe not support — it allows you to get to the heart of the question about Canadian history and the Canadian national idea much more easily.

Kate: No, I totally get what you mean, because the discussion around MacDonald forces us to confront the heart of the questions around Canada as a liberal imperial project, whereas those questions around monuments to slavers should force people to confront that same question around America as empire, but — like you point out — there’s really quite an easy shortcut to have a different discussion that leaves the trappings of America as empire intact. Moving on to more controversial statues in Canada, we have Samuel de Champlain who’s got a couple of statues: one in Orillia, Ontario and another in Ottawa. The Orillia statue really quite awfully originally had a number of statues portraying Indigenous people who were kneeling at the feet of a Jesuit priest, and the original plaque accompanying the monuments said that it was meant to commemorate the advent into Ontario of the white race. So, two thumbs down.

Joel: Yeah. [laughs] Parks Canada announced that they will be reinstalling the statue with significant changes. The Huron-Wendat nation has pointed out that Samuel de Champlain came to the area in August of 1615 to strengthen trade relationships with their nation, was welcomed into their capital, and that the Wendat supported him and his people through the winter until they left for Quebec in 1616. Champlain established the first European settlement in Canada and enlisted the Huron-Wendat in military expeditions against the Iroquois — or did the Huron-Wendat enlist Champlain? Experts, please weigh in.

Brendan: I do think it’s an interesting point, and there’s something later on in the notes here about recognizing the complexity of that period of the very, very early colonization and making sure that we remember the agency of Indigenous nations in that process, because, at that time in the early 17th century, Europeans in North America don’t have the kind of numerical advantage, the kind of military advantages or demographic advantages, that they would have a couple hundred years later, or more, over Indigenous nations. And there were these complex, shifting alliances. And this is sort of the substance of the first part of what gets called “Canadian history,” these shifting alliances between different European imperial powers and different Indigenous nations. So it is very interesting that there would be, potentially, quite different perspectives on that — or on this figure, even — from Indigenous people in different places. Perspectives on these things are not going to be monolithic, but at the same time, we can all agree that commemorating Champlain as ushering the white race into Ontario is fucked up, and we shouldn’t do that.

Kate: Yeah, I have two points I want to make here. One is that I agree with what you’re saying, Brendan, and the same thing is true in the Prairies with the Hudson Bay Company, who were absolutely, in their initial forays into the Prairies, alternatively and weaponized and their resources used by various Indigenous nations to settle conflicts they had or to participate in political alliances, things of that nature. So there’s definitely shifting political understandings over this time period, and shifting political relationships. The second thing — and I think the Champlain statue really shows this better than any of the others — is that there’s definitely been this revisionist myth-making that’s taken place in settler society about what these statutes are meant to do and what they’re meant to commemorate; but, if you return to the statues themselves, which have Indigenous people kneeling at the feet of a Jesuit priest, commemorating the advent into Ontario of the white race, we’re not making any leaps when we’re saying what these statues mean. These statues are telling us the message that they are intended to convey, and that is a message of settler colonialism and of Christian missionaries and of white supremacy. This is not an interpretation that we’ve read into these pieces of art; this is what these pieces of art have told us that they are.

Brendan: Right, because they — I don’t know when this statue was put up — presumably it was put sometime in the late 18th or early 19th century — and so they date from a period of unabashed, open white nationalism as the dominant ideology in Canadian public life rather than something that exists as either something that leftists are pointing out things are racist and people don’t understand how they’re racist, or these small far-right movements, right? In 1920, everybody said, “Yes, Canada’s a white country.” (Not everybody, but white Canadians said that, and they had no bones about it.) And these are the people who put up these statues.

Sean: Nerdy historian interjection — the statue (this is the in Ottawa, correct? — it was created in 1915.

Patrick: Ah! There we go. Thank you; that’s useful.

Kate: So, Edward Cornwallis — who was an aristocrat and a British career military officer who helped put down the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 and usher in the Highland Clearances in Scotland and, as the governor of Nova Scotia, put a bounty on Miꞌkmaq heads — has, or had, a statue in Halifax, but it was recently removed, and the community is currently debating the next steps to grapple with his legacy, including changing streets that were named in his honour.

Patrick: Egerton Ryerson, who Ryerson University is named after, has a statue at the university campus in Toronto. Ryerson aided the Canadian government in creating residential schools, and a quote here is: “It is a fact established by numerous experiments that the North American Indian cannot be civilized or preserved in a state of civilization, including habits of industry and sobriety, except in connection with, if not by the influence of, not only religious instruction and sentiment, but of religious feelings.” So that, again, is from Ryerson and his report on the Indian schools from 1847. So, Ryerson was also opposed to the education of women, found in the published work Arguments over the Education of Girls — Their Admission to Grammar Schools of this Province.

Patrick: Another example of the sort of controversial figures who have been the subject of public commemoration in Canada is James McGill, who is the namesake of McGill University, on the campus of which there is a statue of him. And so he was a slave-owner — he owned both Black and Indigenous slaves, and he also made a lot of money on the fur trade, which exploited Indigenous people. And these ill-gotten gains were, in fact, the funds that started McGill University. I think there’s been a lot of struggle around that in the past little while.

Kate: And of course, because Canada was originally — and, in many ways, still is — a settler colony of the British empire, we do have to talk about Winston Churchill, who has a statue in Toronto and a high school named after him in Calgary. Churchill was, of course, a racist and a British imperialist. His policies contributed to the Bengal famine in 1943, which killed 3,000,000 people — he’s been quoted as blaming the famine on the fact that Indians were, quote, “breeding like rabbits,” and asking how, if the shortages were so bad, why Mahatma Gandhi was still alive. And his own secretary of state for India and Burma described Churchill as having a Hitler-like attitude towards Indians. On Jewish people and on Bolsheviks, he said — and I quote — “there is no need to exaggerate the part played in the creation of Bolshevism and the actual bringing about of the Russian Revolution by these international — and for the most part, atheistical — Jews. It is certainly a very great one.” He goes on to say that, with the notable exception of Lenin, the majority of the leading figures in the Russian revolution were Jews, and the principle inspiration and driving power of it came from Jewish leaders. So, really promulgating this Judeo-Bolshevism as a myth, which was an animating part of reactionary politics in Europe across the 20th century. On China, Churchill said that we need to take the Chinese in hand and regulate them. He believed in the ultimate partition of China, and he talked about how he just flat-out hated people who were Chinese, described them in extremely racist, Orientalizing ways. And, of course — because I don’t think I’d be allowed back into Wales if I didn’t mention this — he did send 300 extra cops into Tonypandy when the coal miners there went on strike and kept the army in reserve because the coal miners were, apparently, looting. And a year later, when the troops who were approved by Churchill, opened fire on a picket line of railway workers in Llanelli, two men were were killed. So Churchill really exemplifies a kind of reaction, both at home and abroad, and is quite typical of imperial racism and anti-worker projects of the British empire of the early and mid 20th century.

Sean: So, while we’re talking about people like Churchill — who, very prominently, in favour of empire, imperialism, dispossession — we also need to remember one of the biggest names in these commemoration debates is Christopher Columbus, who, in 1492, sailed the ocean blue and instigated the genocide of Indigenous people in the Americas. And while Columbus statues are notable around the world, particularly in the United States — where, in the past few months, a lot of them have been targeted, they’ve had paint thrown on them, they’ve been torn down, they’ve been thrown into lakes, into the sea, etc — Canada actually has a handful of statues uncritically commemorating Columbus’ so-called discovery of the Americas in Fredericton, Montreal, Regina, Toronto, Vancouver. So these symbols of empire and imperialism being uncritically celebrated are everywhere, we just sometimes don’t recognize them when we come across them.

Brendan: I did not know that we have statues of Columbus anywhere in Canada, but I do think it’s important to point out, just because of the significance that those are sometimes given — and this is something that I’m invested in as an Italian-Canadian — is that these are often considered to be symbols of Italian people, of Italy, the Italian diaspora. And that’s partly true, in that many of these Columbus statues in North America were put up by Italian organizations, but they were specifically, a lot of them in the United States that I know of, were put up in the 1920s and ‘30s as part of the terrible cross-fertilization of the fascist Italian state promoting nationalism and reactionary racial nationalism among Italians abroad and Italians in North America assimilating into the reactionary racial nationalism of the United States and, presumably, Canada in the same way. So I just want to say that that really sucks and, if we’re going to have statues of any Italians in North America, we could do — people often suggest Saccu and Benzetti. I like that idea a lot. I think there’s all kinds of things we could do instead of commemorating a genocidal slave owner who lived centuries before Italy as a concept was even invented (or reinvented, in some ways).

Patrick: Yeah, and I think that it’s so good to talk about Columbus there because it actually ties a lot of this stuff together, which is that some of the ways that this all fits together, over statues and with the notion of history and place and belonging, is how place names themselves. And the places that we’re living are themselves this colonial layering over of an Indigenous landscape of names and places and places of significance. We can think of Langevin Bridge, or Victoria Park, or — here in Victoria, where I’m from, my hometown — I went to Mount Doug High School and Mount Douglas Park, which has now been returned to its original name of PKOLS; but, you know, this sort of layering over of a colonial landscape on top of an Indigenous landscape that preexisted.

Sean: Yeah, I kind of laugh when I hear Canadians — when I get hate mail and things saying, “You’re erasing Canadian history, you can’t just rename things that have been named for thirty years,” and I kind of laugh because, as you’re pointing out, Canada is basically a project of renaming things as a way of legitimizing colonial power. It’s all about renaming things. Most of the geographic formations — the mountains, lakes, rivers — all have Indigenous names that were replaced by colonizers because they couldn’t pronounce “ekols” [sp] or other Indigenous words that had been in use for millennia. So, renaming was part of the political project of seizing and settling Indigenous territories, right? It was about stealing land and using that land and private property to support a capitalist settler society, but it also needed to be legitimized and re-legitimatized, always, continuously. And so renaming has always been an integral part of that, of claiming places and remaking Indigenous spaces, transforming them into something else. And the issue becomes, really, when monuments no longer play the political role they were intended to do, because once you erect a statue, it just doesn’t sit there — things, and societies, and people’s ideas, change all around them, and that’s what we need to be thinking about in terms of these commemoration debates. And MacDonald, again, is a good case in point, because people need to remember — and we’ve done a little bit of this on the podcast, but we need to remember — when these statues were being erected, right? We know, in the United States, that a lot of the monuments to Confederate generals were not created in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War — they were erected in the Jim Crow era to legitimize Black oppression and normalize white supremacy. So, we need to remember that these statues, these school names, street names, etc all play a political purpose, and our job is to debate whether those political purposes are good or not. That’s the debate part. And, again, MacDonald is really interesting because we think of MacDonald, in the popular commemoration sense, as being this unblemished political character who’s come in to stand for Canada, the peaceable kingdom; but, in reality, he was a pretty controversial guy even in his own time. He left office for corruption, right? So what we need to remember is that the statues to MacDonald were erected, for the most part, in the 1960s and 1970s — people don’t realize this — when the Quebec separatist movement was gaining speed and some, mostly English-Canadian, folks were trying to find a figure in history that, perhaps, could unite that French and English part. So people adopted and reshaped and reinvented MacDonald; they lionized him, in a way, to play this unifying role, to keep Canadian confederation together, even though some of his decisions — including executing Louis Riel — worked against that vision. But now, one of the major projects in Canada is reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, or strengthening those nation-to-nation relations. So, the problem is that Canada erected these statues to MacDonald in the ‘60s and ‘70s when they were trying to bring French and English tensions, to reduce those. But now, you’re left with these MacDonald statues; that’s not the political project anymore. And, instead, now all this information is coming out about MacDonald — that he went to war against Indigenous people, he was the architect of the Indian residential school system — and so, perhaps, these uncritical statues to MacDonald, that maybe worked in the 1960s and ‘70s, they don’t really help advance the project of reconciliation, and that’s why they’re being targeted — and, I would say, rightfully so. Because here’s the thing about commemoration and statues — we can change them any time we want! It’s that simple. If they’re not having the intended effect, we can just tear them down, throw them in the sea, put them in the museum, put up a complicated plaque, whatever we want. We can simply erect new monuments that serve our interests better. We have that ability. We’re not tied to the statues of the past. So I think this is all part of that larger struggle of who gets to define Canada and its interests. Reactionary politicians on the right, who want to protect the colonial status quo and the systemic racism and privileges that it affords them and their base, they want to protect MacDonald. Not because they like him; I mean, heck, Erin O’Toole can’t even spell MacDonald’s name correctly in his tweets trying to honour him. They’re doing this because they don’t really want to advance reconciliation. Decolonization, to them, is a threatening project that will take away their power, privilege, and profit — which is exactly why we’re pushing for it. So, they want to continue colonization, so they want to continue to celebrate colonizers and enslavers. But other Canadians and Indigenous people have a different vision of the future, and I think that’s good, that’s healthy. Commemoration, really, is not a passive thing — it’s an active project of struggle and trying to articulate the vision of the future that we want to bring about. So, I guess understood in that way, it’s easy to see how statues to colonizers like Columbus, or enslavers like Edward Colston in Britain, in Bristol, or monstrosities like Mount Rushmore, which is basically the faces of racist, imperialist US politicians carved into the side of a mountain sacred to the Sioux, can become targeted for demolition and replacement. And I think that that’s actually a sign that we’re grappling with history in really important and interesting ways.

Patrick: Yeah, and I think — to pick up on Sean, there — it’s really important to capture this complex relationship that’s going on, because statues and memorials and other forms of commemoration are not history themselves. Very simply, removing statues, or changing their plaques to re-contextualize them for visitors or whatever, doesn’t erase history, as many hand-wringing people — particularly on the political right — claim. Put another way, to go back to what you mentioned in England, there — the English protesters in Bristol that pulled down the statue of Edward Colston back in June, they weren’t erasing the history of the buildings and institutions Colston had funded in the city but were demanding a moral and political reckoning with how he had made that money by buying and selling Africa slaves. And so, perhaps more importantly, the fight about commemoration is very much about whose history matters, which facts and events deserve to be remembered, and who should be forgotten, what things can be forgotten and let go. And so, it’s not just a fight about what sort of society we aspire to be, but it’s also about who counts in our society, who’s actually part of the community that we’re trying to imagine for ourselves. What is remembered and what is forgotten, and who is remembered and who is forgotten, really matters.

Kate: So, one of the things I wanted to talk about is that, as much as I like seeing people tear down statues — and it is quite a lot — it does also strike me as part of a general phenomenon, or a general tendency, towards aestheticizing politics. And I say this because most other historical examples I can think of, of this phenomenon featuring the tearing down of statues, was when they were doing that as representative of a substantial political change and not as the substantive political change itself. For an example that’s not even congruent with our own ideology, thinking about the removal of statues of Lenin following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Removing statues of Lenin wasn’t what they were doing — what was happening is that the Soviet Union was breaking up, and the removal of statues of Lenin was the representation of that, or was one of the effects of it, or was one of the parts of it. The Saddam Hussein statue photo op after the 2003-4 invasion of Iraq is another example of this. But, in our current moment, we’re almost seeing tearing down the statues, or removing them, as the substantive political change in and of itself, and when I was thinking about this, it strikes me as something familiar to Canada, doing a truth and reconciliation commission without actually changing any power relations or legal mechanisms in Canada when, traditionally, truth and reconciliation commissions are accompanied by the formal, material transfer of power. Think of the Rettig Report being done in Chile after the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet fell, or the truth and reconciliation that was done in South Africa after the end of apartheid; whereas Canada had a truth and reconciliation commission apropos of no real material changes in society. And, obviously, the example of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is much more sinister because that’s people in power using these social forces as a way to maintain power, to not cede it, and to maintain very specific power relations. But I do think it is the same social forces that are leading to this dynamic with protesters, even though it’s, of course, not nearly as sinister and much more part of a general political de-skilling, to have people pursuing these aesthetic aims as a way of doing politics. That said, on the other hand, I really think encouraging this type of collective action is good because, when you act colletively to do those things, you move from participating as an individial in a crowd to participating as a crowd, as a collective unit, and that requires coordination, cooperation, deferring to people, delegation, leadership, supporting one another. And I think the positives of this moment sometimes get taken to extremes — you know, you can’t magically move from spontaneous actions like this to a communist society — but it’s definitely a net positive to have that collective political experience and the experience wielding that type of power. We say all the time on the left that people are powerful and workers are powerful and we can remake the world, so it’s good to actually have that experience of being in a crowd that can make the police run away or tear down a statue or stop a truck or stop a train. Having those real-life experiences of momentarily confronting power and winning, I think, is a really positive political development, and I think the more who have those experiences and have that experience negotiating it as a crowd, the stronger the left will be. I think it’s a useful type of political education with good political aims.

Sean: Yeah, I mean, I hear this kind of false dichotomy of statues or material change being presented all the time. And I guess one of the things — building, Kate, on what you’re saying — is that I don’t think it’s an “either-or”, it needs to be an “and” project. I’m all about uncritical statues to MacDonald down and land back. It can be both, and we can use one to facilitate movement around the other, and I think that that’s really important to understand. At the same time, your point of having things like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or different kinds of more symbolic change, being used as a balm to protect the colonial status quo — I do think it’s important, right? If anyone’s following along on the podcast how many burns to Kenney I can get in, I think I’m at at two or three, so make it another one: just recently, Paul Bunner, his speechwriter (who was also Stephen Harper’s speechwriter), it came out that, basically, he was writing the apology for residential schools in the 2006-2009 period, basically hoping that it would simply go away, that by acknowledging residential school history and those issues, that it would simply disappear. But what’s interesting is that the apology and the creation of the TRC also facilitated a truth-telling process outside of the formal TRC moment, which also helped infuse the Idle No More movement, which, again, was very influential in bringing up conversations, not just about symbolic change, but meaningful change. So I think that there’s that interesting tension between focusing on monuments and symbols, treatment, etc, and organizing for more material reparations, but I think we need to understand those as mutually informing — or, at least, push them to be mutually informing.

Brendan: I guess I have an even more positive view of this. It’s not saying that something that — it’s not necessarily contradictory to pushing for real change, or that it can be pursued in a complementary way. I think, in that that struggle around commemoration and the use of public space itself, there is a prefigurative element, and I think — especially watching the movement that’s been developing in the United States over the past couple of months, there was a very direct passage in the other direction, there was a direct passage from this incredible, direct challenge to racist state power and, then, that symbolic aspect was taken up and people started tearaing down statues. And I think that’s because, in a sense — and this is a little sentimental, but — I think people tearing down a statue that they’ve decided doesn’t fit into their vision of what society should respect and honour is a prefiguration of a society where, in fact, workers and oppressed people decide who is commemorated. I think there’s a little spark of revolutionary potential when people do that.

Kate: Absolutely. And I will add to that: I see way more potential in a moment like where the Coulston statue was torn down in Bristol — where you saw a massive amount of joy and vibrancy, even an element of spontaneity, but also of cooperation and planning, when that statue was taken down — rather than things I’ve seen in other places where you have more symbolic protests targeted at statues until the powers that be decide to take it down, or it’s not worth the fuss, or they just dn’t want to ahve this conversation any more. And, certainly, both methods are a way of getting what you want, and are both useful, politically. I think the former has a lot more political potential. I would say it’s the same difference between getting what you want in collective bargaining through going on strike versus through tough negotiating in the bargaining room. In both ways, you get what you want — the raise, the whatever — but the former is much more politically formative and does much more work to form a class of people that can take further action and further revolutionary political action.

Sean: Yeah, and just to pick up on that from my understanding of how things developed in Bristol, is that there was a lot of organizing well, well, well before that statue came down organizing around the figure of Coulston in Bristol. So, the tearing down of that statue was both, in its way, a spontaneous expression of the moment, but it was built on people coming together and developing a community, and a sense of their community, and this sense of a Bristol that is not a place that is for slaveowners or for Nazis, if we’re dealing with the contemporary British political moment. It was an expression of a larger political organization and of a larger emerging political culture and not the end in itself.

Kate: Yeah, and I want to be clear, here, that I don’t think spontaneity and organization are opposed or mutually exclusive, but I think, in general, an action like tearing down a statue — not always, although generally — is going to have an element of spontaneity of it, just as it’s going to have an element of organization. And that requires people talking about this, forming a consensus on it, organizing the protest that may have turned into tearing down the statue originally. So I don’t want to suggest that spontaneity and organization are two discrete forms of doing politics, but they’re certainly interrelated, and any good action, I think, and any successful action, is absolutely going to have elements of both.

Sean: Another figure that, I think, has been in the news recently — at least in Winnipeg — is this guy named Sir Garnet Wolseley, who was a British army officer who the Canadian government sent out to Red River after the Red River Resistance in 1869-70 to kind of oversee what is known as the Reign of Terror, which is essentially crackdowns and reprisals on a number of Metis people who formed a provisional government and tried to stop Canadian colonization. And it’s really interesting — I’ve just moved to Winnipeg, so I’m learning and listening from all sorts of people having this discussion because there’s a neighbourhood in Winnipeg named Wolseley, there’s a street name and a school named after him, and he was not a very nice person — very anti-indigenous and legitimized the Reign of Terror in his short period here. And so there was a grassroots movement to replace the Wolseley name for the neighbourhood, the school, and the street name, and it gained a lot of speed. And then the Manitoba Metis Federation actually put out a statement that they weren’t in favour of changing the name, that there was a refusal of that. And my colleague, David Parent, in the Native Studies Department here at the University of Manitoba, talked about this refusal by Indigenous people of settler attempts to reckon with history, largely because there’s that surface-level argument that some people are wanting to get rid of these names, but they’re not actually wanting to reverse the consequences of the Reign of Terror and the dispossession that happened in that period and afterwards. And so the Manitoba Metis Federation basically put out a press release saying, “We’re not as interested in having these debates; we’re focused on other kinds of issues.” And so I think that there was also that ingredient in these commemoration debates, that it’s not simply about recognizing that these figures — be it MacDonald or Columbus — are problematic, and then simply getting rid of the statues. It’s an ongoing dialogue and discussion, and in a colonial country like Canada, commemoration debates are just one part of this nation-to-nation discussion. It’s not a one-way street. And I think that that’s an important thing to grapple with and remember as the world is going through this reckoning with colonial history.

Kate: I think maybe that the paradigm of non-reformist reforms fits into this really well, where — in that paradigm, what matters is whether the reform — and here I’m taking renaming things, taking down statues, to be a reform because it doesn’t necessarily address the base material inequities and historic injustices in our society — but there are ways for those reforms to be reformist, to be a way of shoring up power for the state or for settler society. But there are also ways for those reforms to be non-reformist, to be used to create energy and a mass movement, to be an expression of tactics. I think this is the type of thing that does have to be analyzed situation by situation and see: who are the actors pushing for this? Is it building for oppressed peoples, or is it not building power? What is the end result? Is the end result like in Chicago, with their fight over the Columbus statue in general, a vibrant and militant movement led by Black and brown youth against police brutality versus a movement that ends up allowing a university founded by a slave trader to save face? So I definitely think that, for me, it’s a useful paradigm through which to analyze thinking about tearing down statues and renaming things as a political method. So, to conclude this episode, I thought it might be fun to go around in a circle and have everyone say what one of their favourite statues that they love to look at and love to see is — or, alternatively, what one of their absolute least favourite statues that they know of, in existence, that they believe should be, at the nearest possible moment, tossed into the sea. So, let’s start with Patrick.

Patrick: My favourite statue is the statue to Bill Shankly outside Anfield in Liverpool because I am unapologetically an enormous Liverpool FC fan. The club has won their first title in 30 years this year, and Bill Shankly made the people happy, so: up the mighty reds.

Kate: Brendan?

Brendan: So, I have a negative. So, I live in London, Ontario — if we’re talking about colonial place names — and, in another little colonial place within that, Victoria Park, there is a statue commemorating soldiers who fought in the Boer War, which is the most shameless British and Dutch settlers fighting over who got to control the gold and diamonds in South Africa — the least noble, heroic war you could possible imagine. And so there’s a statue of a soldier from the Boer War and a cannon that the British captured in Crimea. So it’s just this great big shrine to Victorian imperialism, and it’s in my city, and I would just love to get rid of that.

Kate: Sean?

Sean: I’ve got a two-way tie. So, I’ve just moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, so there’s lots of Louis Riel statues that I like around my city seeing. And the other thing that we haven’t talked about is that commemoration doesn’t necessarily need to take the form of a statue — so, one of my favourite plaques was posted by a colleague, Jonathan Weir, on one of his walks in Toronto, and it’s kind of humorous because it’s pointing out how, in some ways, commemoration is a bit ridiculous. So, it reads: “The Toronto Recursive History project of Toronto’s Recursive History.” That’s the title. And the writing is: “This plaque was commemorated on October 10th, 2018, to commemorate its own commemoration. Plaques like this one are an integral part of the campaign to support more plaques like this one. By reading this plaque, you have made a valuable addition to the number of people who have read this plaque.” [laughs] “To this day and up to the end of this sentence, this plaque continues to be read by people like yourself. Heritage Toronto, 2018.” So I think, sometimes, commemoration, the debates get really tense, but sometimes, the nature of commemoration can also be funny and give people a laugh as well.

Kate: So, earlier today when I was talking about this episode with my partner, I was originally going to go with the extremely contrarian Adorno-style take and simply say that I believe all statues are fascist. But, in saying that, he reminded me of a statue we saw in Berlin — the Soviet War Memorial in Tower Park — which has the Soviet soldier with a giant sword standing over a crushed swastika. It is extremely, extremely tall, and it looks really, really cool, and I would like to see more of those, just around our society. So, that has got my vote. Thank you for joining us on this episode on the politics of statues. We hope you have learned something and had a good listen. Take care out there, and we’ll see you soon. Bye, everyone!

All: Bye!

[outro music begins]

Kate: The Alberta Advantage is part of a loose affiliation of left-wing podcasts hosted by the bilingual journalism collective Ricochet, who you can find at Our podcast is primarily supported through Patreon by listeners like you. We use the money for equipment and other semi-serious pursuits and, as a thank you, we send out fun packages with grain elevator-themed stickers and weird tote bags a couple times a year. You can support us at Thanks so much for listening, and take care out there.

[outro music ends]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *