by James R. Miller, The Conversation August 20, 2018

In explaining the decision by the city of Victoria to remove a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald from a prominent location outside its city hall, Mayor Lisa Helps tied the action to the cause of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

“It’s been a year of discussion and deliberation, and we realized it’s going to be many years of reconciliation,” said Helps.

Others in Canada in favour of removing statues of historical figures or renaming buildings and streets have drawn the same linkage in recent years. Movements against the commemoration of Edward Cornwallis in Halifax, Jeffrey Amherst in Montreal, and Nicholas Flood Davin in Regina have all been related to advancing reconciliation.

Not everyone is convinced these symbolic gestures are appropriate or sufficient.

Canadian Senator Murray Sinclair, the former chief commissioner of the Truth of Reconciliation Commission, has said removing statues is not the answer for buiding better relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

A year ago, when removing Macdonald’s name from Ontario school buildings was being debated publicly, Sen. Murray Sinclair, the former chief commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, opposed the symbolic approach.

While acknowledging Macdonald “clearly attempted to eliminate Indigenous culture,” Sinclair added: “The problem I have with the overall approach to tearing down statues and buildings is that it is counterproductive to … reconciliation because 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.”

As Sinclair suggested, emphasizing the symbolic removal of statues can distract from more substantial and important actions like finding ways to honour Indigenous héroes.

In explaining the decision by the city of Victoria to remove a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald from a prominent location outside its city hall, Mayor Lisa Helps tied the action to the cause of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

“It’s been a year of discussion and deliberation, and we realized it’s going to be many years of reconciliation,” said Helps.

The differing approaches of Sinclair and the mayor of Victoria raise the question: What is the best way of promoting reconciliation? Are symbolic gestures sufficient, or is more required?

It is important to acknowledge that symbols such as statue removal or other gestures can be important.

Follow-ups are needed

No one who observed then prime minister Stephen Harper’s apology for residential schools in 2008 will doubt the power and impact of that official gesture. The problem with that effort, though, was that Harper failed to follow it up with positive action.

Harper’s government disappointed Indigenous leaders by not endorsing the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Peoples, by cancelling funding for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and by folding the government department that had overseen federal actions to respond to residential school abuse litigation back into the (then) Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

Words without actions were not enough a decade ago. And they do not suffice now.

The distinction between symbol and substance was captured well in an anecdote from South Africa told in my book Residential Schools and Reconciliation: Canada Confronts Its History. University of Calgary law professor Kathleen Mahoney recounted a story of two South Africans — Tabo from the Black majority and Smith from the white minority — brought together in an attempt at reconciliation.

‘What about the cow?’
— and that le
Smith had stolen Tabo’s cow, destroying Tabo and his family’s livelihood. In the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission process, Smith apologized and Tabo accepted the statement. They hugged, kissed, had a cup of tea together and even shared a few jokes. When Smith was leaving, Tabo asked: “Mr. Smith, what about the cow?” Replied Smith: “Tabo, you are messing up this thing about reconciliation. It has nothing to do with the cow.”

But, of course, true and effective reconciliation must also be about “the cow.” It must involve going beyond apologizing and renaming buildings to remedying some of the gross injustices from which Indigenous people suffer in Canada.

It means bringing the funding of on-reserve schooling up to the same level other Canadian children receive. It entails energetic action to resolve the approximately 1,000 Indigenous land claims that are outstanding. And it must include completing the treaty process in those parts of Canada where territorial treaties have not yet been made.

The next time some public figure claims the gesture they are advocating will advance reconciliation, such as declaring A National Day of Reconciliation, ask yourself ader — “But what about the cow?”

MLI

Tearing down statues is not reconciliation

Nothing will dispel the appetite for reconciliation faster than the belief that Canadians who are justly proud of their country must hide these sentiments away and look on silently, while our founders are treated as criminals, writes Brian Lee Crowley

Unsurprisingly for the head of an organization called the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, I believe the current campaign of vilification and erasure being carried out against Sir John A. Macdonald, architect of Confederation and our first prime minister, is both wrong and unjustified. On the other hand, I warmly welcome the desire for reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous peoples that justifies this campaign in the minds of many people of good will.

Can the desire to celebrate the history of perhaps the finest country in the world, and that of seeking reconciliation with Indigenous people who feel wronged by that history, be made to co-exist? I believe they can and that we should try.

Remembering that the most recent attack on Sir John’s reputation was the removal of his statue from the city hall in Victoria, BC in the name of reconciliation, the meaning of that word is worth reflecting on. Perhaps the most famous truth and reconciliation (T&R) effort in the world was South Africa’s following the end of the odious apartheid regime.

The values behind that country’s T&R commission were movingly expressed as: “a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu [kindness] but not for victimization.”

As one acute observer explained, “[t]hus, what [T&R] commissions seek to undo is the deep-rooted human need for vengeance as a means to address past wrongs.”

Reconciliation requires all the parties to focus on the future, which is in our power to shape, not the past, which cannot be changed. It requires them to bring great generosity of spirit to the endeavour, to forswear revenge and retaliation because they only sow the seeds of future conflict. Instead we must look for ways to accept responsibility for past wrongs, to accept genuinely-offered gestures of restitution and healing and to show each other kindness and compassion. That sows the seeds of future comity.

The decision to remove Sir John’s statue and the larger effort to shame him and his contribution fails these tests of genuine reconciliation. And I cite no less an authority than Senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired Canada’s own T&R commission. In 2017 he said, “The problem I have with the overall approach to tearing down statues and buildings is that it is counterproductive to … reconciliation because it almost smacks of revenge or smacks of acts of anger, but in reality, what we are trying to do is … create more balance in the relationship.”

The revulsion with which the vast majority of Canadians have greeted the decision to remove Sir John’s statue shows that this gesture fails the tests of reconciliation because non-Indigenous Canadians do not accept the reducing of their illustrious founder to a one-dimensional caricature, based on a policy that was widely accepted and supported at the time. Far from promoting reconciliation, this will only create resentment and resistance to real efforts at reconciliation that address the future, not the past.

Nothing will dispel the appetite for reconciliation faster than the belief that Canadians who are justly proud of their country must hide these sentiments away and look on silently, while our founders are treated as criminals whose names must never be mentioned in polite company.

Does that mean that nothing could have been done to recognize Indigenous feelings about the historical facts of traditional Canadian “Indian policy”? Of course not. New interpretive material could have accompanied Macdonald’s statue, fully recognizing his role in helping to create Canada’s early Aboriginal policy, along with his many more positive accomplishments, which include, by the way, being an early advocate of women’s rights and the prime minister who gave Aboriginal people the vote (later taken away by Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals).

More importantly Canadians would have embraced the creation and display of new monuments celebrating Indigenous leaders and groups who made noteworthy contributions to their community and to Canada. It is precisely this that Senator Sinclair has called for in the true spirit of reconciliation: not the bringing low of the towering non-Aboriginal figures of our history, but the raising up of their Aboriginal equivalents.

As a former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada once famously said, none of us is going anywhere, by which he meant that Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians must learn to live together, for there is no alternative. How we understand and pursue reconciliation will determine whether we do so in mutual respect and co-operation or mutual distrust and hostility.

Put Sir John back in a place of honour, use the restoration as an occasion to expand our understanding of his errors as well as his feats, and celebrate Indigenous history and heroes too. That exemplifies the two-way street of genuine reconciliation, seeking neither retaliation nor vengeance, but offering instead understanding and kindness. There is still time.

Brian Lee Crowley is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.