An odd, faddish attitude toward reconciliation in Victoria
Another statue, another city, another “healing journey,” and another familiar public ritual resumes, along with all the dramatic performances we’ve come to expect from these affairs, with all the loud ceremonial incantations that derive as they always do from the same irreconcilably opposing liturgies. It’s political correctness gone mad. It’s confronting our history as a racist colonial settler state. And on and on and on.This time around, it’s a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald, conventionally described as a Father of Confederation, but nowadays just as likely to be dismissed as the wicked architect of Canada’s destructive and perhaps even genocidal Indian residential school system. The city is Victoria, the precious little capital of British Columbia. The healing journey in question began a year ago, in June 2017.The drama began on Wednesday, Aug. 8, when Mayor Lisa Helps announced, in not the most helpful sort of way, that the towering 635-kilogram bronze statue of the Old Chieftain that had stood in front of Victoria city hall since 1982 was to be removed by the weekend and stored away in a city warehouse until some decision might be made about what to do with it. And that was that.“This isn’t a decision for the public,” Helps said. “This is a decision for the City Family and I guess as well the City Council and sometimes taking leadership means taking action that is going to provoke these kinds of difficult conversations.”The City Family?The backstory there is that last June, after Helps and her councillors established a “reconciliation task force” to develop a “formal process of reconciliation” with the local Songhees and Esquimalt nations, Helps was advised that the invitation was extended “in a very colonial way.” So the task force transformed itself into the City Family, with Helps in the post of Family Head.They’d meet every month for dinner and conversation in Helps’s office, and the deliberations were conducted according to “a more Indigenous-focused approach” involving input by means of Witness Ceremony. And fair enough, too: If this seems to you like a bit of a rigmarole, you haven’t spent much time in city hall meetings.Anyway, as Helps explained at a city council meeting last Thursday: “What came out very early in the conversation with the City Family was the uncomfortable feeling of coming into City Hall for these gatherings, and or at any other time, with the figure of John A. Macdonald on the front steps.”After prolonged deliberation and discussion and witness ceremonies — “Do we remove it? Do we replace it? Do we take it away forever?” — a decision was reached to remove it, to stash it in a warehouse, and spend some time deciding how to bring the statue back into the light of day at some point with a more appropriate, contemporary meaning and context.And of course, gaskets were blown, trousers were wet, and hair was set on fire. The usual. The affair ended up in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. Ontario Premier Doug Ford weighed in: Hey, nice statue, if you don’t want it we’ll take it. As for the “difficult conversations” Mayor Helps says she’s hoping the statue removal would engender, fine.The problem is, the next thing you know, the “conversations” were turning to preposterous conspiracy theories about Macdonald and other colonial figures distributing smallpox blankets to Indigenous communities with specifically and unforgivably genocidal intent.It is quite true that Macdonald had a hand in a lot of nasty things, residential schools being but one example, and he said a lot of nasty things, like this: “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. He is simply a savage who can read and write.”But Macdonald also said this: “We must remember that they are the original owners of the soil, of which they have been dispossessed by the covetousness or ambition of our ancestors … the Indians have been the great sufferers by the discovery of America and the transfer to it of a large white population.”It is hard to find anything particularly objectionable, per se, in the specific content and purpose of the “City Family” decision to sequester the statue. It is definitely about rewriting history, as Helps conceded, but the intent is “rewriting history in a really conscious and collaborative way,” and it’s hard to find any fault with that.It’s still odd, though, that after a full year of engaging in “Indigenous-focused” deliberations about how to proceed along this journey of reconciliation, the result is a wholly unoriginal and rather faddish idea: Let’s remove a statue. Maybe ritualized, symbolic gestures of this type are mere substitutions for the far heavier lifting that would be required to address the poverty and disaffection that continues to disproportionately afflict the Songhees and Esquimalt communities.Here’s Sen. Murray Sinclair, former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established to look into the legacy of residential schools in Canada: “The problem I have with the overall approach to tearing down statues and buildings is ... it almost smacks of revenge or smacks of acts of anger, but in reality, what we are trying to do, is we are trying to create more balance in the relationship.”It also brings out the worst sorts of people. While several innocently and genuinely concerned Victorians showed up to protest the statue’s removal last weekend, the gathering also attracted members of the pathetic white-identity “Soldiers of Odin” crowd.On the bright side, if Macdonald’s statue was the main agenda item that the City Family felt a need to address, perhaps the citizens of Victoria and the Songhees and Esquimalt peoples have a lot less in the way of reconciliation to worry about than they initially thought.Maybe symbolic gestures of this type are mere substitutions for the far heavier lifting required …
The City of Victoria decided last week to temporarily remove the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald from in front of city hall. Macdonald, celebrated as a Father of Confederation, is also known as the architect of Canada’s Indian residential school system.
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