In the spring of 1979, when I was thirteen years old, I fell in love with two men.
It was an impossible romance from the start. Not only were they both inaccessible to me, but they were each other’s sworn enemies, standing for starkly different values — one doomed to die at the other’s hand. I couldn’t have either of them, and I certainly couldn’t have both.
Plus, they were older than I was. Like, a lot older. Like, dead-many-decades older.
I blame the CBC — for my ill-fated love affairs, not to mention my lifelong fascination with history. In the spring of 1979 they aired the TV movie Riel, about Louis Riel, the Red River and Northwest Rebellions, and his subsequent execution. I was glued to the screen (ok, I was a weird teenager), passionately on the side of and in love with Riel, but also deeply fascinated with the movie’s villain, our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.
They were both towering figures. There were, of course, inaccuracies in the movie, as in any adaptation of history, but it hewed close enough to the actual events and people to send me to books to find out the rest of the story. As for the movie itself, I cried when Riel went to his death. He was played by French-Canadian actor Raymond Cloutier and Macdonald by — I didn’t even realize this till I looked it up — Christopher Plummer.
I spent most of the next summer and my Grade Nine year that followed reading everything I could get my hands on about Canadian history, Riel, the rebellions, Macdonald and the other early prime ministers. There was no doubt in my mind that Riel, Dumont and the other Metis were absolutely in the right, that Macdonald’s ruthless determination to push through a railway and forge a (white, majority-English) nation on top of Indigenous traditional lands was unjust. But, from the safe distance of history, I could admire the powerful personalities of both men, could see Riel’s cause as right but ultimately doomed, could appreciate what Macdonald’s ruthlessness had won for us (us, settlers): a country.
It seemed possible, as a lover of history, a white, settler-descended Canadian, to have both — admiration for Riel’s ill-fated rebellion, and appreciation of Macdonald’s nation-building, even though the two could not coexist. Like most people (most white, European-descended people?) who love history, I have held that love of contradictory characters from history, counting myself as an admirer of both Riel and Macdonald, of Churchill and Gandhi.
With the exception of the true “bad guys” of history — your Hitlers and Stalins — surely, we tell ourselves, these men of the past were all complex characters, weren’t they? We imagine those who held power and those who suffered under them as equally men of their times, to be admired for their accomplishments and forgiven for their excesses.
It’s all well and good, isn’t it, till someone tears down a statue of one of your heroes, and, in the process, his head falls off.
This post is not about debating the rights and wrongs of statue removal. This is not about “erasing history”; the purpose of statues is not to teach us history, and people without statues are not erased.
On the whole, I’m in favour of taking down the statues of people I see as unambiguous bad guys — those Confederate generals in the US South, Edward Colston in Bristol, Stalin, Saddam Hussein. I’m on record (on Twitter, at least) as saying I don’t see the point of Gaspar Corte-Real towering over the St. John’s skyline.
But I have clung to my love for statues of John A. Macdonald, as of the man himself. I like Churchill statues too — the great striding figure covered in bird-crap outside the old Halifax library is a favourite of mine. I have liked, in my history-buff lifetime, a lot of old, dead white guys who said terrible things about black and brown people, and who did terrible things to them, too. I have a history crush on Sir John A., even though he had my other history crush, Louis Riel, hanged. Macdonald was the architect of a nation, and also the architect of the devastation of several First Nations.
I know all this. I know, now, the things he did to and said about Indigenous people in this country he hoped to unite and rule. I know that he never imagined a country in which those First Nations and Metis people could be anything like equal to white, English or French-speaking Canadians of European descent. He didn’t even imagine a country in which First Nations and Metis could go on being themselves, speaking their own languages and practicing their own religion and culture. I have no difficulty understanding why an Indigenous activist might describe a statue of Macdonald as “an open wound.”
And yet. It was a shock, to see the images. To see headless Sir John A., toppled and decapitated by protesters earlier this week.
I used to say that the correct response to every statue of Sir John A. Macdonald would be to erect a statue of Louis Riel immediately opposite him: confronting, challenging, staring him down. There’s something in that idea I still like — like the Fearless Girl facing down the Wall Street bull, I admire public art that challenges other public art, makes us see the original pieces in a different light.
But matching Macdonald and Riel statues would also be soothing to my settler soul, in some way — it would put them, as the TV movie did, safely behind historical glass together, on an equal footing where I could find things to admire about both of them. Standing between these imagined two statues, I would not be forced to take sides. I could go on loving them both.
A toppled statue doesn’t allow that comfortable distance, that false equivalence. A headless Macdonald lying in a Montreal street challenges that safe historical gaze, which is almost always a white, settler, European, majority gaze. Macdonald’s decapitated head tells me that while men like him are in the past, they are not safely there: the damage they did lives on, to be attacked and confronted.
Macdonald’s severed head gazes up at me from the street, from photographs of the street, haunting me. Mocking my perception that history can ever be safe, on a pedestal or behind a screen. Challenging my teenage settler belief that I can have both Sir John A. and Louis Riel.
History is never safely in the past, and we are never mere spectators. History is around us, in the streets, confronting and naming injustice. History stares at me from the street with unseeing eyes, forcing me to choose between my early loves. To take a side.