A statue of Sir John A. Macdonald being sprayed with red paint by anti-colonial activists (screenshot from Vimeo)

Last Friday, an anonymous group announced their responsibility for spray-painting a monument of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s First Prime Minister, in downtown Montreal’s Place du Canada.

The group filmed themselves spraying red paint over the statue, then posted the footage to the anarchist website Montreal Counter-Information.

Explaining the reasoning behind the intervention, the group said in a statement posted on Montreal Counter-Information that Macdonald “directly contributed to the genocide of Indigenous peoples with the creation of the brutal Residential Schools system … As well as other measures meant to destroy native cultures and traditions.”

While one version of Canadian history tends to lionize Macdonald as a paternal figure who led the country to Confederation and independence from British and French colonial rule, another version has emerged in the mainstream that nuances his political and industrial achievements. Efforts like the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway are being scrutinized through stories of human erasure and cultural displacement, notably of Indigenous groups who suffered immensely as a result of Macdonald’s land clearing and assimilation policies.

During a famine in the 1880s, for example, Macdonald ordered the Department of Indian Affairs to withhold food rations to the Plain and Wood Cree and Assiniboine people until they consented to the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Last November, the same statue was the target of a similar action.

“Macdonald statues should be removed from public space and instead placed in archives or museums, where they belong as historical artifacts,” the group wrote at the time of the first demonstration, in a separate statement posted on Montreal Counter-Information. “Public space should celebrate collective struggles for justice and liberation, not white supremacy and genocide.”

The group demands the city of Montreal remove the monument. They praised the recent decision by Montreal’s City Council to rename Amherst Street, named after the British General Jeffrey Amherst, who supported giving smallpox-laced blankets to Indigenous groups to “exterminate” native people from British colonies in Canada during the 1770s. Now, an Indigenous-led committee will rename the street in honor of an Indigenous figure who was fundamental to Montreal’s development.

Across Canada, other cities and groups have been calling for the removal of Macdonald statues as well. As recently as two weeks ago, a statue of Macdonald was wrapped in foam, strapped to a flat-bed truck, and removed from City Hall in Victoria, British Columbia.

After City Council in Victoria agreed to remove the Macdonald statue from City Hall, the newly inaugurated Premiere of Ontario, Doug Ford, offered to host the monument in Ontario.

In recent years, the darker side of Macdonald’s legacy has been explored by academics, in public debates and exhibitions.

In 2015, an exhibition curated by Erin Sutherland, called “Talkin’ Back to Johnny Mac,” addressed the thorny issue of colonization and Macdonald’s policies. Held on Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee territory (Kingston, Ontario), where Macdonald began his political career, the exhibition invited artists to retool Macdonald’s legacy in dialogue with the local Indigenous community. Tahltan artist Peter Morin staged a public intervention at the foot the Macdonald statue, advocating for redress, while Paul Carl, an Indigenous community member of Algonquin and Oneida ancestry, and Laura Murray, a cultural studies professor at Queen’s University, asked: What if the histories of Indigenous erasure were given as much attention as a settler politician?

Montreal police spokesperson Raphaël Bergeron said police are investigating the incident. “If there are people who are claiming it, then, of course, we will try to see what’s going on and find the people responsible,” Bergeron said. “It will be taken seriously.”

By Saturday afternoon, City of Montreal workers had removed the paint and restored the Macdonald statue back to normal. What’s clear, however, is that Canada’s colonial past is being looked at more critically today. This is happening especially in public spaces, where a polarizing culture war is unfolding to reconcile the country’s violent history with counter-narratives premised on Indigenous truth and reconciliation.

Dorian Batycka is an independent curator, art critic, and DJ currently based Berlin. Previously, he was curator of contemporary art at Bait Muzna for Art Film (Muscat, Oman), assistant curator for the...