Indigenous

Rage, red, removed: Understanding the future of Victoria’s monuments

Experts explore ways to productively move forward and contextualize monuments

Indigenous

Rage, red, removed: Understanding the future of Victoria’s monuments

Experts explore ways to productively move forward and contextualize monuments

A protest at a statue of Queen Victoria in front of the BC Parliament Buildings. Photo: Colin Smith / Capital Daily
Indigenous

Rage, red, removed: Understanding the future of Victoria’s monuments

Experts explore ways to productively move forward and contextualize monuments

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Rage, red, removed: Understanding the future of Victoria’s monuments
A protest at a statue of Queen Victoria in front of the BC Parliament Buildings. Photo: Colin Smith / Capital Daily

This article is based on interviews conducted for the Capital Daily Podcast. Click here to listen and subscribe.

A stroll through Victoria’s Inner Harbour will reveal many of the city’s most popular sights, boats on the water, sun shining through the trees, and the reddened remains of the Captain James Cook statue. 

Once a part of the harbour’s peaceful landscape, Cook’s remaining hollow foot and base smeared with thousands of red handprints are a grave reminder of the anger and anguish felt by many in recent weeks. 

Anger towards colonial symbols have been mounting following the discovery of more and more undocumented

graves at former residential schools. 

Emotions peaked on Canada Day when some protestors decided to remove the statue of Cook, an 18th century explorer credited with the ‘discovery’ of Vancouver Island and known for his oppressive, colonial ways.

The damage to that monument was mirrored on the totem pole at the Malahat lookout, burned in apparent retaliation over the removal of the statue. 

But now that Cook has been removed from his loft overlooking the city, and the damaged pole has survived its vandalism, several experts and historians are looking ahead as to how the community can move on and come together.

The removal of statues and monuments is not a new trend. In fact, throughout history in times of political dissent old monuments have been brought down and new ones erected in their place. 

To Dr. Jeffrey Byrd, professor in the School of Communication and Culture at Royal Roads University, statues and monuments, as controversial as they might be, are still needed for the future of society. 

Removal of these figures, he fears, will result in cultural amnesia—not only of achievements, but also of the harm and wrongdoing committed in the past. 

“[Monuments] are important opportunities to educate people, when we actually do have them remain. Sometimes they are so difficult, sometimes they generate so much pain that they just need to be taken down and placed somewhere else where they can be put into a certain context and be used as a teachable form,” he said. 

Byrd says remembering the wrongs of the past is important, but memorializing the anger felt now is equally important. 

“I think what it does is it makes people lean forward and hear the anger and the call to action that needs to occur,” he said, “There is some virtue in this act, but I would hate to see it become something of a normal approach. Because you know, what it does is it also can be divisive.”

The protest, for Byrd, sparked an essential conversation that needed to be had by the community about the future and meaning of statues. But in saying that, he envisioned a different future for the statue of Cook.

“It would have been good to place that in a place like the museum and say, ‘Here's an artifact from another time, and this is what we used to talk about.’ Right? This is how we used to present explorers. Because as I mentioned earlier, the image of Cook is as this navigator and the things that he did is an incredible story, yet he's a controversial figure. He changed the course of history in a lot of ways.”

In a museum the complex history and the anger felt toward Cook could’ve been better contextualized, says Byrd. 

Though Cook came down prematurely before he could’ve been moved elsewhere, Byrd says the province has been finding ways to represent the various interpretations of historical figures at many provincial monuments. 

“What I do like to see is things like the signposts that you see across British Columbia, which are these sites of interest signs. Over the past several years, the provincial government—working with local communities Indigenous and non-Indigenous—has essentially rewrote those and brought them into a kind of present day understanding. So they do represent history, for better or for worse, but we do need to revisit them and look at the interpretation that [the province has] made.”

Moving Forward

For Ry Moran, associate librarian of reconciliation at the University of Victoria and former director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, the conversation around statues is a lot more crucial for the relationship Canada has with Indigenous people. 

“In the work of just general recognition of indigenous peoples rights and histories, we have not done a very good job at telling all sides of Canadian history, it's been very one-sided for a very long period of time,” he said. 

“The big questions for Canada right now are, whose histories are being told? Whose histories are literally being put on to monuments? And what histories are being submerged or displaced in the maintenance of those histories?”

Moran shares that continuing to question who is and isn’t being remembered is essential to the continuing conversations on monuments. But in his eyes, figures who have dedicated their lives to defending and advocating for human rights are the ones that should be memorialized.

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As Canada continues to grow, Moran believes that we are still in a time of firsts, which provides ample opportunity for future statue inspiration. 

“So just this past week, we saw the first Indigenous Governor General in the country's history be appointed. Hopefully, there will be many, many more from First Nations background … Mary Simon is Inuit herself. There are many firsts still to come in this country. And we're still very much in a time of firsts as we start to take greater steps down this pathway of inherent equity, fairness, justice, representation, deconstructing the systems of racism and oppression that have happened for so long, since the inception of this country,” he said. 

Moving forward Moran wants to look at the TRC’s calls to action when in discussion for future monuments, specifically Call to Action #82 which states the need for a new type of monument: a monument that is accessible, highly visible, and will reflect the grief felt by communities in recent weeks to remember the survivors and the children who never came home from former residential schools. 

In Byrd’s eyes, this is only the beginning. The anger, the actions, and the future of monuments are an essential conversation that needs to be continued and will be in the coming months and years ahead. 

“I think the more progressive way is to come together and figure out what to do with existing monuments, and also to what should replace them—which would be a wonderful conversation about art, because a monument is a piece of art whether we like it or not,” Byrd said.

The hollow foot and red handprints smeared across the base of the Captain Cook statue stands as a reminder that without a formal process or a forum for discussing alternatives to statues that are currently standing, people hurt by the history those statues represent can feel they have no alternative.

Correction at 11 am on July 20: This article originally referred to "mass graves". Indigenous leaders have clarified that these graves were not "mass graves" but rather unmarked burials.

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