Montreal’s monuments to colonialism

Monuments and plaques across the city portray Indigenous people with oppressive and aggressive imagery and words, or commemorate European colonialists notorious for killing and subjugating
Photo: tara hunt

A plaque in downtown Montreal dedicated to Confederate president Jefferson Davis was removed in early August in light of the maelstrom of events in the U.S. But is enough being done to acknowledge the city’s own set of problematic monuments and the histories they commemorate?

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Monuments and plaques across the city portray Indigenous people with oppressive and aggressive imagery and words, or commemorate European colonialists notorious for killing and subjugating the First Peoples of Canada.

Charles Le Moyne and the unnamed Iroquois.
Cecilia Keating

For starters, there is the Maisonneuve monument in the middle of Place d’Armes opposite the Notre Dame Basilica, a major tourist stomping ground. The statue is dominated by a 10-foot Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve, founder of Montreal. It includes four smaller statues around its base: three named Europeans — Jeanne Mance, Lambert Closse and Charles Le Moyne — and one unnamed Iroquois.

A boss relief nearer the base of the statue shows Maisonneuve killing the Iroquois. In French, the statue’s inscription reads, "It is an honour to accomplish my mission; all the trees of the island of Montreal should change into as many Iroquois."

“If a group of Indigenous Canadians decided to go and protest in front of statues, then they would become controversial and people would start talking about it. But for the moment, nothing is happening.”

“[The inscription] is basically saying, we will wipe the Iroquois from the map as we have done the trees from the island. It’s genocide,” said Anishinaabeg visual artist Scott Benesiinaabandan, who participated in an artists’ residency in 2015 that focused on reimagining and providing counter-narratives to public monuments around Montreal.

Celebrating genocide

Across from the statue, on the wall of the Bank of Montreal building, two stone plaques — one English, one French — reads: “Near this square, afterwards named La Place D'Armes, the founders of Ville-Marie first encountered the Iroquois, whom they defeated, Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve killing the chief with his own hands.”

Nakuset, executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, said she asked the City of Montreal last year to remove the plaque when they approached her about strategies for reconciliation.

“I don’t think in any other culture you can kill, you can do a genocide and then celebrate it on your own wall,” she said. “It’s very disturbing.”

Four of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action are dedicated to developing a reconciliation framework for Canadian heritage and commemoration.

“He’s a settler. So why is he in the middle of a square where Indigenous people hang out?”

A Bank of Montreal spokesperson told The Canadian Press in early August that the stone marker will be coming down once they have the approval of Quebec's Culture Department. For now, the plaque remains.

Nakuset also approached the City four years ago about removing the statue of British-Italian explorer John Cabot erected in Cabot Square. “He’s a settler. So why is he in the middle of a square where Indigenous people hang out?” She said the initiative fell to the wayside in the light of more pressing issues affecting the Indigenous community that frequents the square, like the potential closure of the nearby Open Door homeless shelter.

Idle No More gathering at Cabot Square in 2012.
tara hunt

Not far from the Cabot monument is the Jacques Cartier monument in St. Henri Park, which has the dismembered heads of four nameless Indigenous men spouting water from their mouths as a victorious Cartier stands above, pointing west to territory uncharted by Europeans. Also at his feet is a tree stump, symbolic of a country cleared.

“These are the stories that are approved narratives of the city and its culture,” said Benesiinaabandan. “Even if you don’t notice it, you can’t deny that having Indigenous heads spewing water at the feet of a white explorer is problematic.”

He believes that the monuments should be brought down, or put in a museum of bad ideas. “Public monuments today should reflect current aspirations of a culture, of a city, of a nation, not poor histories,” he said.

Contextualize, don’t glorify

Benesiinaabandan was first shown the inscription on the Maisonneuve monument by Anne-Marie Broudehoux, a UQAM architecture professor who teaches a class on public art around Montreal. She was alerted to it by a thesis by a Belgian researcher. She said the fact that the inscription was uncovered and analyzed by a foreign academic is typical of locals’ blindness to their own monuments.

“We only talk about public art when there is a crisis. Otherwise we don’t notice it,” she explained. “If a group of Indigenous Canadians decided to go and protest in front of statues, then they would become controversial and people would start talking about it. But for the moment, nothing is happening.”

She characterized the current state as “not actively condoning, but blissfully ignoring.”

Broudehoux believes that problematic public monuments should be contextualized, not removed.

“If you erase traces of controversial history, you erase the memory, then you can’t learn from it and the mistakes of the past,” she said. For example, Maisonneuve could be taken down from his pedestal and re-set in a way that “highlights, instead of glorifies.” Alternatively, a sign could be erected that would allow the statue to be used as “a testimony of something that is reprehensible from the past.” Broudehoux and Benesiinaabandan agree that progress in Quebec will likely be a slow grind. “Quebecers are stuck in their own identity struggle. They are still in survival mode, there’s no room yet to embrace ‘the other,’” Broudehoux said. Indeed, books and university theses have been dedicated to the contest of public monuments and space between French and British communities in Montreal without significant mention of how these representations collectively portray and affect Indigenous people.

According to Dinu Bumbaru, policy director of Heritage Montreal, decisions on what to do with heritage monuments should be shared with the city’s academics and philosophers, and not remain solely in the realm of civil rights activists, historians and politicians.

“Montreal is a place where there has been a contest space for a long time,” he said. “It’s a place of complexity, it’s a place of meeting. This is not a new story.”

The City of Montreal was contacted for this article through the department of public art. An interview was not granted in the requested time frame.

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