What a monumental difference a little over two years can make.
Back in the summer of 2018, Andrew Scheer was the federal Conservative leader speaking to delegates at the Tory policy convention in Halifax. The room erupted in thunderous applause as Scheer gave a spirited defence of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, whose statue had recently been removed from the steps of Victoria’s city hall.
“I’m proud to say that we are the party of Canada’s first prime minister, the father of our federation, and the visionary who made this land possible,” he said at the time. “I think it’s a disgrace that we’re allowing extreme voices in this country to erase our proud heritage.”
Watch: Scheer defends Macdonald’s legacy during 2018 Tory policy convention
Scheer, who is staying on under the leadership of his successor Erin O’Toole, touched on many of those themes in Regina Thursday at a rally in support of keeping a Macdonald statue in the local Victoria Park. The Regina city council is conducting a legacy review that includes consulting Indigenous elders and community members. A plaque has been added to the statue’s base, noting that it “represents a harmful legacy” to members of the community.
The event, organized along with two other Regina-area Conservative MPs and streamed online, came together days after anti-racism protesters toppled a Macdonald statue in Montreal, ultimately separating its head from the body.
This time, back firmly in the full-time role of Regina-Qu’Appelle MP, Scheer struggled to be heard over jeers and heckles from a small group of protesters.
“Why do we build statues and monuments? Is it because we recognize the few public figures who are perfect? Of course not,” Scheer said. “Perfection is not for this side of eternity. No, we do not memorialize people because we glorify every aspect of their lives.”
Watch his remarks:
In between calls of “shame” and “Indigenous lives matter,” Scheer said he didn’t believe anyone ever looked at a statue, be it of Queen Victoria or NHL legend “Rocket” Richard, and thought that person must have been perfect. Instead, he said, they were recognized for their contributions to their countries.
“That’s why it’s so frustrating to see images of John A. Macdonald being torn down in Canada. At this point I’d like to clearly say… I’d like to clearly say… I understand that many of Macdonald’s actions and policies have caused hardship and pain,” he said.
Scheer did not elaborate on the hardship Macdonald caused. Canada’s first prime minister’s legacy includes creating the residential school system that separated Indigenous children from their families in what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission determined was cultural genocide. Thousands of Indigenous people also starved under Macdonald’s leadership.
“If we are going to reserve monuments and public statements to those who have been perfect, well, I’m not sure who we would ever end up honouring,” Scheer said.
And just as he did on that Nova Scotia night two years ago when he addressed the party faithful, Scheer made a point of highlighting some of the shameful aspects of the legacies of Liberal prime ministers.
‘Shall we apply that same logic to Wilfrid Laurier?’
“Shall we apply the same logic to Wilfrid Laurier, the Liberal prime minister who signed an order-in-council… preventing Black people from immigrating to Canada? Should we take him off the $5 bill?” he asked. “How can the Liberals still have an exclusive club for their top donors, named after him?” Scheer said, a reference to the Liberal Party’s “Laurier Club.”
Scheer also noted that Mackenzie King turned away Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany — a historical sin for which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologized in the House of Commons in 2018, calling King out by name.
Scheer recounted some of his own words to the House in 2017, marking the 150th anniversary of the first meeting of Parliament, about how it is “fashionable” to look down at the past, but doing so can mean turning a blind eye on a “beautiful story” of a country that is changing for the better.
He also delivered a direct message to the demonstrators in attendance.
“If we replace cancel culture with critical thinking, we can have heartfelt conversations and actual dialogue instead of emotional reactions. And by talking and learning from those mistakes, we can separate those mistakes from actual hate,” he said.
Regina–Lewvan MP Warren Steinley touched on much the same themes, saying there’d be no statues left if historical figures were judged “purely on the mistakes they made.” But he said Canada wouldn’t exist without Macdonald’s leadership.
“Certainly not everything that Sir John A. said or did is worthy of celebration. There’s no denying that many of his views and actions, especially regarding Indigenous Canadians, were totally unacceptable,” Steinley said.
He also questioned if a statue to former NDP leader Tommy Douglas might come down because he wrote his master’s thesis on eugenic policies, including forced sterilization of the so-called mentally defective and incurably diseased.
Regina–Wascana MP Michael Kram told the crowd that while there is no doubt the Canadian nation inflicted horrible injustices on Indigenous peoples, the blame “cannot be placed on one individual.”
He noted another shameful part of Canada’s past — the racist Chinese head tax implemented by Macdonald’s government in 1885 to deter immigration — “was supported and gradually raised” by both Tory and Liberal governments. Former prime minister Stephen Harper formally apologized for the tax in 2006.
“Our history is not a comic book. There are no supervillains. There are just a lot of regular people trying to do the right thing who succeeded in building a great country but who also made their share of serious mistakes along the way,” Kram said.
Like Scheer, he had some thoughts about so-called cancel culture.
“In the modern world of social media and political activism, if you are accused, you are guilty,” Kram said. “And anyone who might try to defend you is also guilty. It is the mindset of witch trials.”
The three MPs have launched a petition they intend to present to Regina city council. A website supporting the petition warns “a radical leftist minority wants to rewrite Canadian history, tear down monuments to our founders, and destroy any sense of national unity.”
Saima Desai, one of the demonstrators in attendance, told CBC News that removing the Macdonald statue is not about erasing history.
“That history still exists. It still exists in the history books, it still exists in the trauma that Indigenous people carry here on Treaty 4 territory,” she told reporter Heidi Atter. “There are people living on this territory today, on Treaty 4 territory, whose families were deliberately starved by that man standing on a pedestal over there.”
Scheer later met with some of the protesters to explain his point of view, as shown in footage tweeted by Radio Canada journalist Emmanuelle Poisson.
He released a video that appeared to link the toppling of the Macdonald statue in Montreal with vandalism that saw the head of a Virgin Mary statue removed outside a Toronto church.
“Canada is better than mob rule and attacks on freedom of religion,” he says in the clip, pointedly adding he does not want to see “the division and polarization that we see in the United States” come to this country.
In the clip, O’Toole said it was “incredibly disappointing that it took Prime Minister Justin Trudeau so long to condemn these illegal acts.”
Trudeau told reporters in Montreal Monday he was “deeply disappointed” by the toppling of Macdonald’s statue. Decisions around what to do with divisive monuments should be made by communities and their elected officials, he said, not small groups acting unilaterally.
“We are a country of laws and we are a country that needs to respect those laws, even as we seek to improve and change them,” the prime minister said. “Those kinds of acts of vandalism are not advancing the path towards greater justice and equality in this country.”