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Ridding our public spaces of the architects of Canada’s genocide

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Last week, the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (EFTO) voted in favour of dropping John A. MacDonald's name from schools named after him. Canada's first Prime Minister was, by various measures, a terrible dude. MacDonald believed in the supremacy of white people and the foundation of Canada as a Christian nation. His biggest nation-building project, the railway, was rushed along to shuttle soldiers from East to West in time to defeat the Métis rebellion in present-day Saskatchewan.

MacDonald starved and put to death great leaders, like Mistahi-maskwa (Big Bear), Pitikwahanapiwiyin (Poundmaker) and Louis Riel. He laid the colonial foundation on which Canada was built. He was one of the architects of Canadian genocide.

ETFO's vote happened in a context where people across North America are fighting for their place in The Public; to leave a new mark on our common spaces. To remove the statues of the old order and create new monuments that celebrate something more honest or reflective of who we collectively are.

In the United States, this has focused on Confederate leaders and the statues erected to celebrate them, many of which were built in the 1950s, when white control over America started to crack and the civil rights movement emerged. Powerful white men pressed into the earth monuments to honour their legacies and enduring power. The movement that has coalesced around these monuments is symbolic: first make the symbols fall so that next, the old order may fall too. Direct action and civil disobedience has reclaimed the power of people to say whose history should dot the modern landscape.

But the question "whose history do we honour?" has confused and angered politicians and pundits who represent the political classes. They warn that confronting our past in such direct means is an attack on free expression or, laughably, "extreme political correctness," as John Baird told CBC.

If you see Canada's history as static and correct, perhaps this movement is confusing. But history is neither of those things, and the monuments that governments have erected represent the narrowest telling of our history. This isn't really a struggle over monuments, it's a struggle over public space: does the public have a right to determine what is placed our public spaces?

The answer to this question requires a public reckoning, a sort of tug-of-war, where debate and confrontation, including direct action, creates a public consensus that is always in flux. Right now, that consensus, broadly speaking, says that we oppose hate speech, but the definition of hate speech is never static. All sides of these debates impact where our equilibrium rests: rallies and public actions, individual acts of hate and the intimations of pundits, writers and academics all influence what is commonly understood to be acceptable, from the worst elements of hate speech-defending fraudsters to progressive thinkers, whose analyses permeate the public in various ways.

At the heart of this struggle is this stumbling block: The Public has been privatized. The Public is made to feel as if we don't have the right to carve our own mark on our public spaces. Vandalism is illegal. Putting a stake into the lawn at Queen's Park to erect a sign or a tent is illegal. Throwing paint on a statue is illegal. Expressions of public sentiment that altar the landscape are mostly illegal.

On the other side, "peaceful" protests of racists or white supremacists are legal. An anti-immigrant, pro-white protest planned on City of London property this week is not only legal, right-wing pundits argue, but they also whine that to forbid these people from shouting about the sub-humanity of Muslims, constitutes an attack on Free Speech.

If you go to the Scarborough Campus of the University of Toronto, there is one graduating class composite photo that is behind Plexiglas. That's because the graduation photo of Paul Bernardo is there, and it's been vandalized. The Public reaction to someone like Bernardo has created an anti-monument to one of Canada's most notorious murderers. The Public has spoken through vandalism about what it thinks of the public expression of Bernardo's face.

Bernardo serves as an example of an issue where there is clear consensus: no one is going to be charged for vandalizing his face. But colonial images are different, even if the violence and murder they represent are well known. Police protect statues. If the public calls for a plaque to be removed, politicians might agree or they might not.

These symbols cut to the heart of who we are and what side you're on depends entirely on who you are or who you identify with: either Canada is a great nation, flaws and all, and we should honour the past, or it's a colonial nation that continues to perpetuate harm on millions of people. To deny that these are the lines that divide this debate is to deny Canada's history itself. Besides, a nation can't grow from the ashes of genocide and then expect no one to raise concerns about honouring the architects of that genocide.

The process of reckoning with Canada's past is difficult, and often uncomfortable to witness. And every public flare-up of racist, colonial attitudes tends to be rooted in the worlds that are most implicated in the worst elements of Canadian genocide. From the media's appropriation prize stupidity to CBC's reliance on white supremacists to explain their point-of-view on national television, from police brutality to the use of solitary confinement in prison, from politicians talking about "extreme political correctness" to politicians ignoring Indigenous people's suffering -- these are the vestiges of the old that continue to plague the present. And here, the reckoning with the past is the most grotesque and difficult to watch.

But, as most of us don't have access to this world, we remain in the streets: knocking over statues of Cornwallis or Ryerson, replacing John A. MacDonald Elementary with any of the thousands of better options, and engaging in a tug-of-war over our public spaces through direct action. Because really, this is where we build consensus on where that line is: on who we want to collectively remember, and who we want to collectively topple and put back into the museum of our genocidal origins.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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