We Didn’t Know What the Monument Meant Until Someone Said It Should Be Removed
by Aylan Couchie
In July 2016, I, along with thousands of smartphone users across Canada, became captivated by an app-based game called Pokémon Go, built upon Google mapping and location-service technology. Users must venture to specific locations in order to progress to new levels. Public spaces are designated locations where users can “level up,” which means landmarks, monuments, memorials and sites of historical significance become destinations for players on a regular basis. I lived in Halifax at the time of the game’s release and can attest to the short distances I had to walk between monuments—the city is rife with them. I often looked around and wondered if other players in the vicinity were taking any opportunity to engage with and learn from these objects.
By August, this question began to be addressed when CBC News wrote about Pokémon Go players (mostly adults) disrespectfully sitting and even lying on Winnipeg’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) monument. When players were confronted by a concerned MMIW family member, they appeared to be unaware of what the monument represents. As the family member recounted, “They just said, ‘We didn’t know. We didn’t know what it was for,’ and they stood up and they moved.”1 This indifference, juxtaposed with impassioned and zealous protests over recent monument removals, lends itself to ask a larger question: what role are monuments playing in our current society?
Outside of the Pokémon Go phenomenon, public indifference toward commemorative objects can also be examined via ongoing critique and dialogue surrounding photography and selfie culture at sites of memorialization. Writer William C. Anderson documents his frustration over witnessing this activity at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (informally, the National Lynching Memorial) in Alabama. Anderson writes, “When I came upon a white man taking photos of the columns, I couldn’t help but think, They’re still taking photos. Lynching itself, like many forms of anti-Black violence, is something we have so much record of, partly because white people rigorously documented their own evil.”2
Israeli-German artist Shahak Shapira has also engaged in this critique with his web-based project dubbed YOLOCAUST (2017), a combination of the popular culture acronym “YOLO” (You Only Live Once) and the word “Holocaust.” As part of this project, the artist turned to social media to collect selfies and other photos people had taken while visiting Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial. Shapira removed the backgrounds from these collected images, editing them to superimpose the subjects— some doing yoga poses or juggling—overtop of historical photos documenting the real-life horrors of the Holocaust.3 This re-contextualization not only reminds viewers of the events that begot the Holocaust Memorial but also provides a platform for interrogating how contemporary society interacts with monuments.
While some monuments reflect tragedies or collective memorialization (9/11, MMIW, Holocaust), others commemorate historical figures (John A. MacDonald, Robert E. Lee), which may tacitly or explicitly perpetuate erasure, represent outdated ideologies or present half-truths. In other words, not all monuments were created equal—some exist to identify and revere structures of power. This is reinforced by Natalia Krzyżanowska’s writing on the semiotics of commemoration in urban spaces, which states:
Apart from strategies of naming (places, squares, streets, etc.) and designing spatial order, commemoration remains the key tool of symbolic power and enacting symbolism and axio-normativity4 in city spaces.… Therein, the salience of monuments and commemorations becomes crucial … as a tool of creating an identity of a place and providing various tools for its redefinition and re-construction.5
In Canada, creating national identity was— and still is—dependent upon the selective commoditization and erasure of Indigenous people, culture and lands. Tokenized objects of Indigenous culture—maple syrup, Inuksuit, totem poles and dreamcatchers—line the shelves of tourist shops at airports, landmarks and historical attractions. The Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., adorns its entry, lobbies and hallways with Inuit sculptures, Northwest Coast prints and artworks inspired by First Nations people and cultures. Yet Indigenous histories and landmarks have been largely omitted from textbooks, geographical wayfinding and public commemorations, resulting in a considerable gap in Canada’s collective education.
Brian Osborne, professor emeritus of geography at Queen’s University, writes about the creation of a national identity that relies on lack of knowledge or collective amnesia, upon which idealist myths are constructed and then reinforced through selective collective remembering. Osborne asserts:
National mythologies and symbols are manipulated to encourage identification with the state and reinforce its continuity and ubiquity. Through various devices, otherwise detached individuals are implored to recognize one another as being members of a larger group sharing a common historical metanarrative. In this way, states create a common heritage or identity for new generations on the foundations of a “should have been” past, rather than an actual history.6
The power wielded through selective commemoration narratives becomes acutely significant considering that colonial monuments hold space upon lands acquired through ongoing violence and dispossession. As Osborne notes, “Monuments attempt to mold a landscape of collective memory, to conserve what is worth remembering and discard the rest.”7
Reflecting upon the history of monument removals—such as Louis XIV’s monument during the French Revolution, Napoleon’s Colonne Vendôme during the Paris Commune and statues commemorating Hitler following the fall of Nazi Germany—proves, firstly, that historical figures are not erased or forgotten despite the removal of their monuments, and secondly, that monument removals both follow shifts in social and political ideologies and compel new ones.
Two events in summer 2017—the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12 and the Proud Boys’ “Halifax Five” counter-protest in July—illustrate how protesting the proposed removal of monuments is an attempt to uphold structures of power; in these instances, white power or white supremacy. The principles and ideologies of the alt-right and alt-lite people behind both events are no different than their KKK and neo-Nazi predecessors, save for the ways they use technology— gaming platforms, social media, YouTube, reddit and 4Chan—to indoctrinate, recruit and organize. In a sense, these technologies are what produced the turnout in Charlottesville, resulting in the death of Heather Heyer, and what ultimately catalyzed the removal of Halifax’s monument to Edward Cornwallis. In both instances, rampant nationalism, amped up through online discourse, manifested itself in physical form at monument sites.
The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville was planned to unite all factions of “the right” in a show of solidarity using the proposed removal of a monument to Robert E. Lee as pretext. While many are familiar with the now- iconic tiki torch march held the night prior to the failed rally and ensuing riot south of the border, few understand the events that led up to the removal of Halifax’s monument to Cornwallis. Though touted as Halifax’s founder, the man was also genocidal and, in 1749, issued an order that came to be known as the Scalping Proclamation against Mi’kmaq men, women and children. The monument had been the subject of protests and actions calling for its removal for years but, that July, it became the site of an altercation between the Mi’kmaq, their ally activists and five members of the Proud Boys, now known as the “Halifax Five.” Much of the Canada-wide attention surrounding this incident came directly from videos posted to social media following the altercation.
Halifax City Council had, one year prior, outrightly rejected a proposal requesting a preliminary discussion about the future of the city’s Cornwallis landmarks and statue; the July altercation between the Proud Boys and anti-Cornwallis activists forced this issue onto the table again. A staff report called the monument “a protest flashpoint,”8 and concerns over public safety were cited. On January 30, 2018, City Council convened and, with a quick vote of 12–4, made the decision to remove the statue.9 With the rest of Canada now watching, Halifax Mayor Mike Savage took a political opportunity to frame the monument removal as an act of reconciliation, stating: “The Cornwallis statue has be- come a powerful symbol … I believe its continued presence on a pedestal in the middle of a city park is an impediment to sustained progress and forging productive, respectful and lasting relationships with the Mi’kmaq in the spirit of truth and reconciliation.”10 The irony in this whole course of events is that, in trying to protect the Cornwallis legacy, the Proud Boys ultimately caused the removal of his effigy.
Monuments like the Cornwallis statue commemorate the instigation and sustenance of power structures that Indigenous people are forced to continually fight, both politically and socially. These effigies represent Indigenous oppression and, as the alt-right has clearly demonstrated, are revered as important structures for upholding white supremacy and Canadian nationalism. To give another example: when the City of Victoria, in 2018, removed its statue of Sir John A. Macdonald—a founding father who oversaw the implementation of the Indian Act and residential schools—a handful of protestors draped themselves in Canada flags and sang the national anthem as a crane lifted Macdonald off his platform outside City Hall. Central to their protest was the notion that Macdonald was being erased from history, despite the fact that his legacy lives on through the millions of Indigenous people across Canada who still endure the harmful and ongoing effects of policies he instituted.
In comparing the general disinterest and indifference toward monuments—as illustrated by the initial examples given above—to the outcry of attention they can suddenly receive when their removals are suggested, it seems possible that perhaps objections to removals aren’t based on the fear of erasing a historical figure, but instead on a refusal to consider that history was written with particular motives. Acknowledging and reckoning with those motives will be a crucial component of moving forward in Canada. As monument removals11 have historically followed shifts in political and social ideologies, the significance of these actions as they pertain to establishing new and respectful relationships with Indigenous people cannot be understated. If Canadians are to seriously embark upon (re)conciliatory futures, making space and clearing new paths will, at times, require old colonial structures to be knocked down—systemically and physically.