In a 7-1 vote, Victoria city council, sitting as committee of the whole, voted Thursday to remove the statue of Sir John. A Macdonald from the entrance to City Hall.
The decision comes on the heels of Mayor Lisa Helps’ announcement that the statue would be removed Saturday (Aug. 11), as per a decision made by the City Family and the Witness Reconciliation Program.
The two groups were formed in 2017 between the City and the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations in an effort to lead a more “Indigenous-focused approach” to reconciliation.
The framework, endorsed by council in June 2017, states: “For the City to do more than talk about Reconciliation, we must be prepared to question convention, learn from Indigenous custom and tradition, and risk doing things differently than our usual routines and processes.”
Still, several councillors expressed skepticism to the process Thursday due to its lack of consultation with the public.
This decision to unbolt the statue with “almost no notice” was not satisfactory, said Coun. Geoff Young, who cast the lone vote against the motion. He added the process has been disrespectful to citizens who want to have a say in the discussion.
Mayor Helps responded that a public debate would only prolong the decision with opinions going back and forth.
“That’s where leadership is required,” she said. “No matter when this decision would be made, it would be a contentious decision.”
This discussion has been going on for years, she said, adding both council and the Sir John A. Macdonald Historical Society “got a heads up.”
Councillors Chris Coleman and Pamela Madoff shared their hesitation to vote in favour of the motion given the letters and emails received over the past 24 hours from constituents. The pair both agreed the agenda item was a surprise, with Madoff pointing out that regardless of council’s decision, how the public is informed is “so important.”
“I recognize that we have made people very angry in this process and that has not been helpful,” Coleman said.
Coun. Marianne Alto expressed concern about the message council is sending to local First Nations about its intentions in respectfully approaching reconciliation outside the “conventional hierarchical structure.”
“We acknowledged repeatedly that this was going to be extraordinarily challenging,” she said. “And, that its very essence relied on us accepting that reality.”
Coun. Charlayne Thornton-Joe shared a story of the impact the statue had on her conducting historical tours of Chinatown for the last 25 years.
“Part of the tour is the acknowledgement that the Chinese lost the vote and were required to pay a head tax and then walking by that statue not realizing that was the person who [implemented] that,” she said, visibly emotional.
The removal of the statue is not about rewriting history, she said, but rather reflecting on whether city hall, “a building that is welcome for all,” is the proper location for it to stand.
“History cannot be erased,” Thornton-Joe said. “History is there but I think how we tell history and the truth telling is really important. There are many great things Sir John A. Macdonald did for the country and should be recognized, but the other story needs to be told.”
Council will make a final decision at tonight’s meeting.