An odd, fad­dish at­ti­tude to­ward rec­on­cil­i­a­tion in Victoria

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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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