John, John, John he’s been John so long, now it’s high time John was gone

City Hall by Paul Dechene

The Sir John A Macdonald statue in Victoria Park is going into storage. And even though I predicted this would happen, I still managed to lose a bet on how council would vote on Bronze John A’s fate.

I really, really thought the decision would be unanimous. Unanimous to take the statue down, I mean.

In the months — heck, years — leading up to this March 31 council meeting, Regina’s Indigenous community had come out strongly against keeping the statue in Victoria Park. And as council has repeatedly and consistently voiced unanimous support for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls To Action, I figured surely council would come together to make this small gesture towards reconciliation.

But I was wrong.

In the end, four councillors — Bob Hawkins, Terina Shaw, John Findura and Lori Bresciani — voted to keep John A where he is.

And I am five dollars poorer for having had faith in human goodness. [1]

Nothing Is Real Without White People

The main stumbling block for the dissenters was what they deemed as a flawed consultation process.

Instead of conducting online polls and community meetings as the city has done for things like the smoking bylaw and any of our many master plans, administration followed the procedure set out in its Civic Art and Cultural Collections Policy. As such, they responded to years of protests and thousands of names on petitions by flagging the statue for a Legacy Review that involved consultation with Reconciliation Regina and the groups most impacted by the statue.

This meant sitting down with the city’s Indigenous community to learn how the statue represents past harms against them by Canada and the ongoing system of colonial oppression.

The result of the review was the recommendation to mitigate further harm caused by the statue by first putting it in storage and then beginning a wider community consultation about better locations for John A and ways to better contextualize his legacy.

However, for councillors like Hawkins, it was a mistake to not directly engage Regina’s non-Indigenous population from the start.

“The consultation process, although it included some groups, was limited,” said Hawkins during the meeting. “We have a duty to consult fully and inclusively. We have a responsibility to hear all voices. We have an obligation to listen before acting.”

The criticism didn’t end here. Dissenters argued the whole notion of reconciliation had been imperiled by not bringing white folks into the discussion.

“If we do not allow the broader community to participate fully in the decision we are making today, we endanger reconciliation and that would be tragic,” offered Hawkins.

“I worry about the fact that … to take him [the Macdonald statue] out and put him in storage, and I’m going to ask, what does anyone learn when someone is in storage?” wondered Councillor Bresciani. “This is not reconciliation where we haven’t heard all voices, we haven’t brought everybody together to learn.

“It is our job to ensure that public engagement is done,” continued Bresciani. “It doesn’t matter how we feel on the issue. And for myself, whatever comes back from the general public, they have the say. If it stays, if it is relocated, that’s the beautiful piece of reconciliation.”

Councillor Cheryl Stadnichuk, meanwhile, was having none of what Hawkins and Bresciani were selling.

“We don’t like to have the majority rule over minority rights,” said Stadnichuk. “I think that’s part of the issue that we’re dealing with: it’s that we have failed Indigenous people for decades and decades and decades. And every time they say, ‘This is what we need to heal,’ we say, ‘Well, we’ve got to check in with everybody else on this.’”

Councillor Andrew Stevens pointed out that putting the statue into storage was only a first step and a community wide dialogue will soon start.

“This is probably going to be the easiest thing we confront,” said Stevens. “We’re just asking to move a piece of bronze into storage for 12 months, maximum. At that point, we’re going to have a public consultation about the final resting place and I suspect we’ll find that solution much sooner. I’m actually quite grateful that many who have suffered at the hands of intergenerational harm are as accommodating as they are in this regard, that they’re okay seeing the statue just removed and placed somewhere else.

“This isn’t cancel culture or erasing history or virtue signaling or whatever is the popular term to claim what this is,” he continued. “The dominant society had their voice in the 1960s in the crafting of this bronze statue.” [2]

Old Macdonald Has Some Baggage

At times, the three-hour debate over Bronze John’s fate turned into a history lesson. Delegations and councillors alike made detailed reference to Macdonald’s role in Confederation, building the railway and opening the west, and to his role as an architect of the residential schools system, his policy of starvation against Indigenous peoples and his history of white supremacist statements that were considered egregious even by his contemporaries.

According to Councillor Dan LeBlanc, splitting Macdonald’s legacy into good balanced against bad doesn’t capture the true context.

“It’s inaccurate to think that some of these policies were good while others were bad,” said LeBlanc. “Rather, these were the same policies as seen through two different lenses: one by the people who the policies were meant to benefit — white folks; and the other by the people harmed by the policies — Indigenous folks.

“The railroad was built to settle white folks in the west. In order to settle white folks, John A. sought to clear the plains. He did this through starving, marginalizing and deculturing the Indigenous inhabitants.”

For LeBlanc, the road to reconciliation requires putting extra weight on the wishes of communities who have been negatively impacted by Macdonald’s policies.

“I think the neutral position is to remove [the statue] from the park and have it in storage in the meantime.… Some or many Indigenous people are nervous to go to the park, avoid the park, etcetera, because that statue is there. I can’t imagine the inverse is true — that, if we remove the statue, suddenly certain European-descended folk will refuse to go to the park unless they can see Sir John A’s smiling face greeting them there.”

LeBlanc continues: “It is incumbent upon us as a city to side with the Indigenous people who were harmed by John A’s policies, or side with John A. himself.”

And as for the argument that taking the statue down was an attack on our history, Stadnichuk pointed out that the statue itself commemorated a man guilty of the worst kind of historical erasure.

“If we want to talk about erasing history, it was John A Macdonald and decades of governments that erased Indigenous history,” said Stadnichuk. “If we want to talk about cancel culture, it was John A Macdonald and decades of governments that tried to cancel the entire culture of Indigenous people, outlawing their practice, pow-wows, their dress, their language.

“Macdonald’s legacy was trying to obliterate Indigenous people in this land, to make them irrelevant.”

Toppling Statues Is History

It was a long, hard discussion that involved passionate arguments from both sides. And I think everybody came away with a fuller understanding of Macdonald’s legacy and what it means to people in Regina. I definitely learned more in that meeting than I ever did by walking past Bronze John in Vic Park.

In the end, that’s the real lesson. Statues make terrible teachers. They just stand there and attract pigeons.

It’s only when we consider moving them, or taking them down, melting them for scrap or putting them in a museum that the real learning starts.

[1] It was just a symbolic bet so technically I only lost imaginary dollars.

[2] Non-Indigenous folk who opposed moving the statue also had their say on the floor of council at that Mar 31 meeting. No one was being ignored or silenced. Council and committee meetings are all open to public input. They are public consultation, and it’s irritating how often that gets glossed over.