In the wake of the anti-racist movement revived by the death of George Floyd, a petition is circulating to demand the removal of the statue of the founder of McGill University, known for his slave history. A movement that resonates around the world, where several statues have been debunked or vandalized, again on Sunday in Milan. Should these emblems of a colonial past disappear from the public arena?
“Any tree would be better than looking at James McGill,” said Hannah Wallace, the originator of the petition that collected more than 2,300 signatures on Sunday evening. She recalls that the man owned black and native slaves and used the wealth gained from their exploitation to found McGill University.
“James McGill is part of history with its virtues and weaknesses, you can’t change that. But to pay homage to him with this statue is to pay homage to slavery. This is too much, it cannot last, “said one of the signers, Thibault Camara. For those who present themselves as an immigrant and anti-racist activist decolonial, the death of George Floyd brought out all the anger of “the oppressed who now need to express it by acts”, in particular by refusing to pay daily tribute to these characters historical with a “dubious” past.
He also gives the example of the bronze statue of Sir John A. Macdonald in downtown Montreal, which has been vandalized several times in recent years. It is also the subject of a recent petition, signed by more than 16,000 people, asking for its debunking. The Prime Minister of Canada and one of the fathers of Confederation are criticized for his violence against Aboriginal communities.
But his withdrawal is not in the plans of Montreal mayor Valérie Plante, who instead called for a public “dialogue” on the issue last week.
A dialogue that has been promised for several years, notes Dinu Bumbaru, spokesperson for Heritage Montreal. “As usual, this
drags on and it’s not a priority. And each time, we are taken when the fire is blown. “
He recalls that the City of Montreal adopted a Heritage Action Plan in 2017, which was to initiate a reflection on the representation of these commemorative monuments. “Can we manage these statues simply as a matter of public art, when they are the source of a social debate? Our judgment on these characters has evolved over time, this is normal. Now how do we manage this? Asks Mr. Bumbaru, calling on the City to start the dialogue as soon as possible.
The subject is also the subject of debate elsewhere in the world. From the United States to France, via the United Kingdom, Belgium or even Italy, several statues and monuments have been degraded or unbolted by demonstrators in recent weeks, as a sign of revolt against these emblems of the past colonialist. In Milan, the statue of a famous Italian journalist, Indro Montanelli, was sprayed with red paint on Sunday and tagged with the inscription “racist, rapist”.
In the United States, Confederate monuments have been brought down and statues of Christopher Columbus beheaded in recent weeks. In the United Kingdom, the word “racist” was inscribed on the statue of ex-Prime Minister Winston Churchill, near the parliament in London, while the monument representing Edward Colston, a slave merchant who lived in the XVIIe century, was completely thrown into Bristol.
As usual, it drags on and it’s not a priority. And each time, we are taken when the fire is blown.
In the opinion of Francis Langlois, professor of history at the Cegep de Trois-Rivières, the global reflection on racism – raised by the death of George Floyd – is so deep that it has pushed every society to face its inequalities race and his own story from another perspective.
“The process was already underway, among others in the United States. This idea of attacking the symbols of racism and colonialism had gained momentum after the shooting in a black church in Charleston in 2015 and after the riots in Charlottesville in 2017. The death of George Floyd accelerated things, no only in the country, but elsewhere in the world, ”notes Langlois.
Erase the story?
But isn’t removing these emblems a way to deny the past, or even to erase it? worry many politicians and citizens reacting to this global movement.
French President Emmanuel Macron said in a message to the nation on Sunday that if France will be “intractable” in the face of racism, it “will not erase any traces or names from its history.” There was also no question of unseating statues, he insisted, reacting to a series of demonstrations during which some deemed racist were targeted.
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“We teach history in school and in books. These statues serve as a commemoration, it’s different. Wanting to remove them is a testament to today’s history, a reflection that we have now in 2020. We write history by such an act, “says Jonathan Livernois, associate professor of literary history and intellectual at Laval University.
He gives the example of the Place de la Concorde in Paris. “Formerly, it was called the Place de la Révolution, and before that, Place Louis XV. By renaming it, we didn’t erase history, we wrote a new chapter. “
The professor calls, however, to “think carefully” before taking action and to avoid being guided solely by our emotions.
Francis Langlois agrees with this, while insisting on the need for in-depth reforms to accompany the renaming of places or the collapse of monuments. “These acts are symbolic above all. If we want to write a new chapter in history and really change the situation of black or indigenous communities, the political community must also take action. “
With Agence France-Presse