Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he is “deeply disappointed” by the toppling of a John A. Macdonald statue in Montreal over the weekend, but understands the “impatience” and frustration of Canadians seeking more action to tackle systemic racism.
“We are a country of laws and we are a country that needs to respect those laws, even as we seek to improve and change them,” he said Monday at a news conference in the city. “Those kinds of acts of vandalism are not advancing the path towards greater justice and equality in this country.”
Trudeau was asked to weigh in on an incident that happened at the end of a peaceful protest Saturday that saw a statue of Canada’s first prime minister pulled down by demonstrators and defaced with graffiti. The statue’s head detached from the body after it crashed to the ground at the Place du Canada.
Earlier on HuffPost:
The Coalition for BIPOC Liberation, which organized the march of roughly 200 people calling on cities to cut their police budgets in half, later released a statement online calling for the removal of statues and emblems that promote slavery, anti-Black racism, or anti-Indigenous racism. “These racist monuments don’t deserve space,” the group said.
Macdonald’s government created the residential school system that separated Indigenous children from their families in what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded was cultural genocide. Residential school survivors suffered physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. His government also created the Indian Act, which aimed to assimilate First Nations people and gave the federal government control over most aspects of their lives, including governing bands, status, and reserve land. Under his leadership, thousands of Indigenous people starved.
Trudeau told reporters Macdonald’s contributions to building Canada as its first prime minister should be acknowledged alongside his unacceptable words and actions. But he said it is up to different communities and their elected officials to determine how best to remember that history, not “small groups” who want to make those determinations unilaterally.
He said the same standard should be applied to other prime ministers who did not abolish the residential school system, including his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
“We have an awful lot to do as a country and part of it needs to have a clear eye towards the past and mistakes made by previous generations of people who built this country,” he said. “But our focus needs to be on how we improve things today and for the days to come, for all Canadians.
“And that means tackling systemic discrimination everywhere it exists, taking significant measures to make sure that Canadians are safe and aren’t facing extra barriers that are inherently unfair.”
Relying on vandalism to advance causes, he said, won’t “help anyone move forward the right way.”
Trudeau said that while people on “either side of the spectrum” are trying to use such issues to stoke debates, he is more interested in tapping in to the “real frustrations that people have as motivations to continue to make the big changes necessary.” Asked what he was referring to, Trudeau said in French that some in the “extreme right” want to create so-called “culture wars” to divide Canadians.
In June, the prime minister promised to take action on systemic racism “very soon.”
Last month, in the thick of a summer of reckoning over anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, Trudeau said he had tapped ministers to come up with strong policies meant to “eliminate barriers facing Indigenous peoples, racialized people and persons with disabilities.”
It remains to be seen what policy proposals will make it into the throne speech in September that will reflect the government’s priorities in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Trudeau’s remarks Monday echo sentiments expressed by Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, who tweeted Sunday that she condemned the vandalism of Macdonald’s statue.
“Some historical monuments, here as elsewhere, are at the heart of current emotional debates,” she wrote. “I reiterate that it’s better to put them in context rather than remove them.”
Plante said the city’s public art office will “coordinate the conservation of the statue” and next steps will be taken in consultation with heritage experts.
“Tearing down statues of the founders of our democracy serves no purpose but to disrespect the memory of those who have served our great country,” O’Toole said online.
During the Conservative leadership race, O’Toole frequently railed against so-called “cancel culture.” In a clip posted in January, O’Toole defended Macdonald and blasted the City of Victoria’s decision to remove a Macdonald statue from the steps of city hall in 2018.
“No one would ever suggest that Sir John A.’s statue is up because of the terrible decision, early in our country, to have residential schools,” O’Toole says in the video. “No, he’s being honoured because of what he did do — built the most spectacular country in the world.”
In that same video, O’Toole criticized Trudeau for renaming the Langevin Block building in Ottawa, which houses the Prime Minister’s Office. The building was named after Sir Hector-Louis Langevin, who was both a Father of Confederation and an architect behind residential schools. O’Toole called it a symbolic gesture that didn’t help anyone.
But despite scrubbing Langevin’s name from the building, Trudeau said three years ago that his government would not remove Macdonald’s name from federal properties, as pushed by members of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario.
“I can say, unequivocally, there are no plans by the federal government to change the name John A. Macdonald off of anything in our responsibility,” he said at the time.