By: Megan Mahon
TW/CW: Residential Schools On July 1st, in my hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba, a rally was held in support of Indigenous peoples and residential school survivors in lieu of Canada Day celebrations. During this peaceful rally, a statue of Queen Victoria which sat on the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature was toppled. Participants wrapped the statue in ropes and covered it in red paint, and brought the old queen of England crashing to the ground. In her place was left a sign which read, “We were children once. Bring them home.” Today, a month and a half later, the statue is gone but the plinth remains, covered in red handprints as a poignant reminder of the so-called country of Canada’s colonial past.
Source: Travis Golby, CBC.
Predictably, after this happened, a group of people who had likely never given this statue a second glance came out of the woodwork, arguing that Vandalism Is Bad and Statues Deserve Human Rights. Encouragingly, they were met with a great number of detractors who countered that the statue of Queen Victoria was a horrible reminder to Indigenous peoples of Canada’s genocidal policies towards them, and that removing her likeness was a small step towards truth and reconciliation. I’m sure you know that this author – a white settler of British descent – believes that the latter view is the correct one. However, far more relevant to this discussion than the author’s views is the question: what’s to be done with this statue, now that history has finally caught up with it?
It needs to be noted that this is no the first time this statue has been subject to protests. In the summer of 2020, during a rally in support of Black Lives Matter, it was dashed in red and white paint. If this history is any indication, then Manitobans have already made their feelings about the statue perfectly clear. So, clearing the statue of its paint, removing the messages of support for Indigenous people from its plinth, and reinstating Queenie V isn’t an option. It would be a slap in the face to those fighting for truth and reconciliation (also, objectively speaking, the statue is an eyesore). What, then, is to be done with it?
Source: Gary Robson, CTV News.
From a Museum Studies perspective, I would love to see this plinth remain as a marker in our history: a representation of the people’s will and a reminder to settler Canadians that Canada’s genocidal past is not past at all. The statue of Victoria can be melted for scrap, for all I care – it's not the important part anymore. The plinth, with its multitude of red handprints, can rest on the legislature along with other important figures in Manitoba’s history (most of which, it must be said, are white and male) as a call to action, and a reminder that until the truth is uncovered and reparations are made, there can be no reconciliation at all.
What are statues, after all, besides physical manifestations of that which a nation chooses to remember? A monument stands as a representation of history: a Sparknotes summary, if you will, of the most important bits. People can observe these relics and see what about their country’s identity is important enough to be cast in stone. By showing Queen Victoria, we were celebrating our history of British colonialism. By tearing her down, we were indicating that we no longer value what she represents. If the Manitoba government decides to leave the plinth as it is, red handprints and all – as I sincerely hope they do – it will serve as a marker of the chapter in our history where settler Canadians were forced to reckon with a past that has been not hidden, but rather ignored for far too long.
The most important thing that we can do about this statue, however, is to ask Indigenous communities what they believe should be done with it. There’s no situation where the status of reconciliation improves if Indigenous people are not consulted about the ways that the history of this land should be portrayed. In fact, it’s not just reconciliation that’s at stake: Indigenous people need to be included in all aspects of our decision making for the future of our world. Indigenous land and water defenders have been at the forefront of the fight against climate change for decades, including at Fairy Creek in Pacheedaht Territory. So, no, this issue isn’t just about an exceedingly ugly statue. It’s about ensuring Indigenous involvement in re-shaping the ways we view our past, so we can save our future.
Although there’s no word on what’s to be done with the statue as of yet, we can only hope that the Manitoba government – and governments all across Canada who are facing similar situations – will heed the words of those who tore Queen Victoria down: this statue no longer represents who we want to be. Let’s create new monuments, to a better and more equal future, together.
Devon McKendrick. "Statues of Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Victoria toppled at Manitoba Legislature."
Rachel Bergen. "Mother figure or colonial oppressor? Examining Queen Victoria's legacy after Winnipeg statue toppled." https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/queen-victoria-winnipeg-statues-residential-schools-colonialism-british-empire-1.6090322
Nia Williams. "What's happening in Fairy Creek? An explainer on the fight over B.C.'s old-growth forests." https://nationalpost.com/news/whats-happening-in-fairy-creek-an-explainer-on-the-fight-over-b-c-s-old-growth-forests. "2 statues of queens toppled at Manitoba Legislature." https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/queen-victoria-statue-winnipeg-1.6087684