Building a better future from the debris of racist monuments

A tribute to Nazis in Ontario, Canada has re-ignited the debate about what should be done with monuments to white supremacy and hatred.
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Like many Montrealers, one of my favorite places in the city is the majestic lookout on top of Mount Royal. However, on a recent bike ride up the mountain, I noticed something that had somehow escaped my attention in the hundreds of times I had stood in that spot taking in the skyline.

On the railing surrounding the lookout sits a plaque which reads: “On October 2nd, 1535, Jacques Cartier, discoverer of Canada, climbed the mountain under the guidance of the Indians of the village of Hochelaga and, impressed with the beauty of the landscape displayed before his eyes, he gave it the name of Mount Royal, from which the city of Montreal took its name.”

The plaque was installed in 1935, some 400 years after Cartier landed on these shores, setting off a process of European colonization, displacement of Indigenous populations, and genocide. In 1935, it might have been acceptable among white people to argue the misguided notion that Europeans “discovered” North America, but today such a notion would be widely regarded as racist. The doctrine of discovery advances a white supremacist view that the First Nations of Canada were largely uncivilized, and in need of “discovery” in order to be written into the legitimate annals of Canadian history.

Plaque honoring French-Breton colonial explorer Jaques Cartier who claimed Indigenous lands in what is today Canada for France after reaching the St. Lawrence River in 1534, in Mount Royal Park, Montreal. (Photo: Marc Bruxelle/Getty Images)
Plaque honoring French-Breton colonial explorer Jaques Cartier who claimed Indigenous lands in what is today Canada for France after reaching the St. Lawrence River in 1534, in Mount Royal Park, Montreal. (Photo: Marc Bruxelle/Getty Images)

Such monuments don’t belong in public places. They should be removed immediately and instead placed in museums where they can be properly contextualized. 

There has been a massive debate across North America as to how we should reckon with public commemorations and displays of our past atrocities. The example of statues is a great place to start. Ever since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May and the massive rebellion that it sparked, monuments to Confederate leaders, slave owners, and colonizers have been coming down across the U.S. In Canada, the city of Halifax removed a statue of the colonizer Edward Cornwallis in 2018, and in Montreal, a statue of John A. Macdonald has been defaced repeatedly in the last few years with demands for its removal. A few weeks ago in Toronto, several members of Black Lives Matter were arrested for splashing paint and hanging banners from three statues commemorating racists. Some would call it vandalism, but these brave folks were actually doing the work that cities need to do to educate the public about our historic wrongdoings. Without this education, we can’t begin to imagine a better future.

There is an argument that removing statues and plaques is an erasure of our history. But do monuments like these teach us and our children about slavery, residential schools, and state-sponsored racism? That history should be taught in schools and reckoned with at every level—not celebrated and brandished on pedestals or plaques atop our cities’ finest landmarks.

As a Jew, the urgency to take down monuments to white supremacy and hatred was underscored recently with the news that a cenotaph commemorating a Ukrainian SS division that collaborated with the Nazis during WWII was defaced in Oakville, Ontario. This act not only shined a light on the fact that this tribute to Nazis stands boldly in public in a Canadian city but also re-ignited the debate about what should be done with such monuments. While some, such as Bernie Farber (the former head of the Canadian Jewish Congress) have argued that these monuments need to be “rethought,” I would argue that they need to be taken down without hesitation—and not only monuments to Nazis, but to all white supremacists in Canadian history. 

We are at a decisive moment in history where monuments to hatred are falling all around us. We can either allow statues of racists, fascists, and colonizers to remain standing, or we can tear them down and try to build a better future, learning from the mistakes of the past. 

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Let’s test doen all staties of all people who didn’t believe in full equality of all people!

This seems a bit far afield for the Mondoweiss focus. Perhaps the author has a program for the thousands of monuments to racism that exist in Israel, starting with many of the street names? Also, he might have taken a few sentences to explicate the Ukrainian history behind what he simplifies as a “monument to Nazis.” From what I know, the Ukrainian soldiers who collaborated with German armies in taking Ukraine away from the Stalinist… Read more »

Ludicrous. Pulling down statues is the unmistakable sign of either the abject impotence of a mouse that roars without an audience, or intentional fascist propaganda: in the former case it means you can’t do anything at all in real life about what the statue represents and its current implementers; in the latter it means you are offering a fake sacrifice, that of a statue, to the multitude so that the boobies can continue to suffer… Read more »

‘the misguided notion that Europeans “discovered” North America,’ When you find something that you didn’t know existed, you discover it. The people who crossed the Bering Strait/sailed down the West American coast and found the Americas discovered North America. So did the Europeans who sailed across the Atlantic. A difference between them is that the Europeans had maps, and made a connection between Europe and the Americas and put it on the map. So we… Read more »