After Macdonald, by Ronald Rudin

December 18, 2020

In August 2020 the statue of John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, was toppled from its place within an elaborate, eighteen-metre-tall structure, erected in Montreal’s Dominion Square (now Place du Canada) in 1895.

Figure 1: “Monument of Sir John A. Macdonald.” Photo. Located in Place du Canada, Montreal. Artist: George Edward Wade, 1895. Photographer: Guy L’Heureux, 2012.

Montreal’s monument to Macdonald was only one of many that were installed in prime locations across the country as Canada saw the public celebration of the lives of men with power. This was the same turn-of-the-twentieth century process that included the erection of monuments to Confederate leaders in the American South, or to the slave trader, Edward Colston, in England.

In all these cases, powerful figures from the past were lauded in public space following campaigns by individuals who felt that their own position in society would benefit from shaping public memory. This connection between past and present was most visible when leaders in the Jim Crow South saw value in celebrating the memory of Confederate heroes as a tool for bolstering their dominance. In the case of Macdonald, his Montreal monument was championed by business leaders who profited from the transcontinental economy that Macdonald had supported through such tools as construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

In the celebration of Macdonald, nothing was said about his overtly racist policies, which he had proudly introduced. In the case of Indigenous people, he advocated assimilation whenever possible, most notably through his role in creating Indian Residential Schools; and when assimilation was not possible, he was prepared to use the force of the state, as he did in ordering the execution of Louis Riel, the Métis leader of a rebellion in what became Saskatchewan in 1885. To highlight Macdonald’s role in this action, protesters beheaded his Montreal statue in 1992, on the anniversary of Riel’s hanging.

In regard to other Canadians of colour, Macdonald made no effort to assimilate, but rather turned to exclusion. In the case of Chinese Canadians, he introduced legislation that prevented those already in the country from voting, and brought in still other laws that restricted Chinese immigration by instituting a head tax. While men such as Macdonald are sometimes forgiven for their actions because they were “normal” at the time, in the case of his policies towards Chinese Canadians he was ahead of the curve. Timothy Stanley has shown how “through all the debates on the franchise and Chinese immigration, Macdonald was the only member of Parliament to refer to the Aryan nature of Canada or to make claims about the biological incompatibility of East Asians and Anglo-Europeans.”

Given this record of racism, it is hardly surprising that Macdonald’s monuments became a magnet for racial justice advocates. The fall of his Montreal statue during the summer of 2020 (pictured below), following the murder of George Floyd, was entirely in line with Colston’s toppling in Bristol, or that of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, in Richmond, Virginia.

Figure 2: “Protestors Demand Defunding of Montreal Police.” Photo. The McGill Tribune. Photographer: Pascal Hogue, 2020.

In all of these cases, once the offending structure had been removed, the question emerged as to what should be done with the plinth that remained. By and large, authorities have been reluctant to replace the old heroes with newer ones, fearful of the pushback that might come from any action.

There is, however, a model available that would allow the repurposing of the Macdonald Monument, without erecting a new permanent structure, which would only convey the sense — as had the old statues — that our understanding of the past is fixed and unchanging. This model can be found in London’s Trafalgar Square where four plinths were erected in the nineteenth century to celebrate figures whose lives spoke to a glorious imperial past. Three of those plinths support statues honouring a monarch and two military men.

Figure 3: The Mayor of London’s Fourth Plinth Commission. “The Fourth Plinth.” Photo. Located in Trafalgar Square, London. Architect: Sir Charles Barry, 1841.

As for the Fourth Plinth, it was supposed to provide a home for a statue to William IV, but the needed funds were never collected, leaving it empty until 1998 when it became the site for an on-going series of temporary public art projects.

The modern artwork on the Fourth Plinth has not tried to re-interpret the past, but it does suggest how the space left behind by Macdonald’s statue might be used towards that end.

Figure 4: “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle.” Replica of an HMS Victory in a bottle. Located temporarily in Trafalgar Square, London. Current Permanent Home in National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Artist: Yinka Shonibare MBE, 2010.

As in the case of the Fourth Plinth, artists could be invited to propose temporary projects inspired by Macdonald’s life in particular, or more broadly connected to issues of social justice. These projects would have to be done with the involvement of the pertinent communities, avoiding the situation that emerged following the fall of the Colston monument, when a white artist went rogue and without consultation with the Black community installed a statue of Jen Reid, a Black Lives Matter protester. But if done properly, imagine the power of, say, a project by Indigenous artists installed on Macdonald’s monument, responding to the sort of racism that informed his career.

Such a program could usefully move us beyond the nineteenth-century notion that public representation of the past needs to be chiselled in stone, in the process allowing voices often excluded from public space to be heard. As Patricia Phillips has observed: “Public art does not have to last forever … Ephemeral public art provides a continuity for analysis of the conditions and changing configurations of public life, without mandating the stasis required to express eternal values to a broad audience.”2

Adopting this approach would be particularly useful in terms of the Macdonald Monument which sits in the midst of a Montreal landscape strewn with other monuments closely connected to Canada’s racist and imperialist past. Imagine a series of artworks committed to racial justice, standing on the Macdonald structure directly across from one in honour of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, whose own policies deserve re-examination. The key here is to use our imaginations.


Ronald Rudin is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Department of History, Concordia University.


1  Timothy J. Stanley, “The Aryan character of the future of British North America: Macdonald, Chinese Exclusion and the Invention of Canadian White Supremacy,” in Macdonald at 200: New Reflections and Legacies, eds. Patrice A. Dutil, and Roger Hall (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2014), 131.

Patricia C. Phillips, “Temporality and Public Art,” Art Journal 48, no. 4 (Winter 1989): 35.

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