From the Statue of the Bench: Four Centuries of Abuse, by Sameer Riaz

September 10, 2021
ARCH 251
Professor Annmarie Adams

Figure 1: New bench in Cabot Square, Étienne Brière, 2021.1

In early July 2020, at the beginning of the global pandemic, the City of Montréal installed new benches in Cabot Square, a public urban park located in the downtown area. The benches in question were marked with the words “REPOS 15 MIN”, telling users to limit their time on the bench to 15 minutes, a message clearly intended to deter homeless people from sleeping there. Cabot Square has long been one of the rare places where struggling homeless natives, mostly of Inuit descent, can gather and seek help at the nearby shelters and resource centers. The bench was promptly removed following tremendous backlash on social media, but its stay, although brief, reveals another chapter of an unchanging story, a story that dates back to Cabot himself.

We can talk about the obvious.

The bench sits in Cabot Square, a site that takes its name from Jean Cabot, his statue prominently exhibited in the heart of the square. Cabot was an Italian explorer whose expeditions and “discoveries” contributed to the arrival of Europeans in North America. Their arrival began a story whose successive chapters saw the indigenous communities of the land face unspeakable horrors century after century, some occurring on the land where this bench sat. Horrors like eviction from land they had lived on for untold centuries, dying in mass plagued by diseases they’d never known, war, residential schools.

The roads delimiting the square: Atwater and Lambert-Closse, are names of two men who at best stood idly by while these tragedies were taking place, and at worst encouraged and orchestrated them.

The bench is blue, a symbol of the province of Quebec and thus the country of Canada, which lies on stolen land. The words on the bench: “Ville de Montréal” and “Ville-Marie” reference the role of religion in the history of the province, which of course, was not without blame in the tragic story of the indigenous of this country. The use of the French language piles on to the now numerous references to a problematic past.

A prosperous country like Canada has the responsibility to house its citizens. The fact that homelessness is still a reality in this country is shameful and indigenous people are disproportionately represented in the homeless population.2 It is cruel that these people, the ones whose culture and civilization was fractured by colonialism, have to sleep under the statue of a European explorer, next to this bench.

All of these elements allude to a troublesome past and necessitate removal. There is reason to rejoice in their absence, and hope can be gleaned from attending rallies and changing flags to include the indigenous peoples of this country. For example, in September of 2017, the City of Montréal modified its coat of arms to include the pine tree at its center in an effort to include the native peoples in its official image, acknowledge their presence in the history of the city, and highlight the ongoing efforts at truth and reconciliation. Many of the higher education institutions in the city have incorporated “land acknowledgements” on their websites and on official documentation stating that the land on which they operate is unceded with similar intentions.

Figure 2: New coat of arms with pine tree.3

It is a triumph that this bench was removed less than a week after it was installed.
However, these victories do not address the underlying issue. Our past is littered with overtly racist monuments and references, but racism is a way of thinking. Exclusively removing these references to racist history overlooks the covert, hidden racism of today.

Let’s take a look at the bench once more, closer this time.

Figure 3: Closer picture of the bench. Émilie Clavel, 2021.4

Changing the colour and removing the references to the city of Montréal and Ville-Marie would not change anything. The “REPOS 15 MINS” is without a doubt written to exclude the homeless population of the square, and no land acknowledgement or flag or colour would change that.

Understanding where to begin requires analysis, beginning with questions such as: “Why here?” There are many public squares in Montréal, why would the bench be placed in the one that is used by unhoused indigenous communities to gather? The General Hospital, a place where many members of the Inuit community came to receive medical care, recently moved to a different location. Perhaps this bench was a way to tell them that they were not welcome anymore.

Next follows the question: “Why now?” Amid a global pandemic resulting in a collective sheltering indoors, what was the need for another bench in a square already replete with benches? The square is located on Saint-Catherine street—a commercial area—and next to a metro station, two places that experienced a significant decline in usage during the pandemic. It is evident the goal was never to serve the people at all.

The symbol on the bench depicts an elderly person with a cane, and there are two wide elbow rests in the middle of the bench. What do these mean? The pictogram’s message, as well as the writing, are quite evident: the bench is placed for elderly people to sit on during a walk and the “REPOS 15 MINS” tells everyone to use the bench for no more than 15 minutes at a time. Perhaps the large elbow rests are there to be used by the elderly to put their weight on when they leave the bench after their timed 15-minute sit. That would make sense, but that is far from the whole story. The armrests go hand-in-hand with the “REPOS 15 MINS”, their placement makes sleeping impossible, enforcing the 15-minute rule. This begs the question, what is the true purpose of these armrests: to accommodate the elderly, or to exclude the homeless? Maybe this is an unfortunate coincidence. The armrests were originally designed to help the elderly get up and they just so happened to prevent lying across the bench. Maybe it was a “two birds with one stone” type of situation, where both the reasons were used to justify their placement. I argue that there are two reasons, one real one and one red herring. There was never any intention to accommodate the elderly at all. Making it look like the armrests were for them was an afterthought. Notice the shape of the armrests, they don’t end at the front edge of the bench, they end one horizontal “beam” before the end. When someone is attempting to get up from a bench, support closer to the front of the body is much more useful than support from behind. This is a way to narrow the opening under the armrest to prevent a person from sliding beneath it to sleep.

The bench is also facing the street, not inside the park area of the square like one would expect. Maybe this is to accommodate passersby and allowing them to sit down without having to walk into the square. However, sitting inside the square under the trees is surely more comfortable and pleasant. I believe that the bench is placed here, in this way, once again to tell the world who is welcome and who is not; by facing it toward Saint-Catherine street, it discourages the homeless people residing in the square from using it out of fear of being seen.

This deeper analysis of the bench design reveals a recurring topical phenomenon. Overt celebration of past oppression is being eliminated but is simultaneously being replaced by an undercover expression of similar ideas. The expression of these ideas is retreating from the spotlights of statues, newspaper articles and laws, and it has infiltrated other places where intentions can be hidden away, like architecture.

The city may make public efforts to appear progressive and inclusive, but this bench along with so many other less-than-transparent installations exposes the reality that efforts of truth and reconciliation are not fueled by the sincere hope of repairing the damages done by centuries of abuse. The hope is to appear inclusive, not to include. This bench, with its armrests and with its pictorial elderly figure, uses accessibility as an excuse for exclusion, which is insulting for all parties involved.

This is blatant hypocrisy. Modifying a flag to uplift indigenous culture falls flat when indigenous people are not housed or fed. There is certainly no integrity in truth and reconciliation when architecture is weaponized to make them invisible. Truth and reconciliation must not only address our dark past but account for the ongoing actions of today.

While removing offensive references is certainly progress, it can only bring real change when it is coupled with a change in attitude. This comes with a more active effort to make the environment reflect the values of the indigenous peoples of the land.
Returning to the bench one last time, there is another facet that is often overlooked. Before the arrival of Europeans, the natives were the custodians of the land. It is documented that this special care for nature and the Earth is central to their spirituality. This adds another item to this already long list of problems; not only have colonizers removed indigenous people from their land, but they disrespect the land itself.

There are so many instances of the land being used in ways completely contradictory to indigenous practice. The colonial practice of city-building commonly disregards what was here before, and hastily places a gridiron plan of asphalt and concrete. This is reflected in the design of the bench, starting with deciding who is allowed to sit there, and, more importantly, who is not. Further, the armrests prescribe how many people can use it at once, and how far apart they should be sitting. It goes so far as telling people how long they can use it for. The way the land is used is fueled by arrogance and with the intent of efficiency and domination over what was here before us and is around us.

This disrespect for the land and this disconnect from the importance the natives gave to it is another way that society has failed the indigenous people of this country.

Figure 4: Cabot Square, Emily Campbell, 2020.5

This bench illustrates just how complex the issues of truth and reconciliation are, and how we can not limit ourselves to thinking critically about what can be seen. This begins with acknowledging that the outward racism of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries is still truly present. Public opinion has forced it to retreat from the center stage, but it is just as destructive, perhaps even more so, out of the spotlight. There is also a need to uncover the true intentions behind banal-looking installations. The most innocent of design choices can uncover troubling realities. Finally, indigenous communities in Canada must not only be acknowledged but respected and valued.

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Sameer Riaz is an undergraduate student at the Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture, McGill University. This essay was written for ARCH 251.

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1 Étienne Brière, Blue bench, 2020, photograph, Huffpost Quebec, https://quebec.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/banc-itinerants-square-cabot_qc_5f073972c5b67a80bc044db9, accessed February 21, 2021.

2 Andrew Yang, Aborginal Homelessness in Canada, Borgen Project, https://borgenproject.org/aboriginal-homelessness-in-canada, accessed March 11, 2021.

3 Montréal Coat of Arms, City of Montréal, https://www.mtl.org/en/experience/montreal-flag-and-coat-arms, accessed February 22, 2021.

4 Emilie Clavel, “Montreal withdraws an “anti-itinerant” bench at Square Cabot”, Huffpost Quebec, July 10, 2020, https://img.huffingtonpost.com/asset/5f074d9d270000b107e66844.png?cache=h4DTrfRbn8&ops=scalefit_720_noupscale&format=webp, accessed February 21, 2021.

5 Emily Campbell, Untitled, November 29, 2020, photograph, CTV Montréal, https://montreal.ctvnews.ca/homeless-worried-over-what-planned-cabot-square-skating-rink-will-mean-for-them-1.5209647, accessed March 15, 2021.

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