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Monuments removed and places renamed: 5 contentious historical rewrites of 2019

Here are the five most contentious cases of monuments being removed and places being renamed in 2019.

The colonial origins of some street and building names in Canada are receiving increased public scrutiny, and discussions are being had about whether some historical figures with views we don’t approve of today should still be memorialized in monuments or statues. 

Here are the five most contentious cases of monuments being removed and places being renamed in 2019.

1. Statue of Justice Matthew Begbie removed

On July 7th, a bronze statue of BC’s first chief justice, Matthew Begbie, was removed from its stand outside the Law Courts in New Westminster, BC. 

Justice Begbie is sometimes referred to as “The Hanging Judge.” 

In a conflict known as the 1864 Chilcotin War, an English and American road-building crew entered Tsilhqot’in (Chilcotin) territory without permission. Because the Tsilhqot’in didn’t want their land conquered, and allegedly were concerned about the threat of smallpox and men assaulting their women, they killed 21 English workers.

Afterwards, five Tsilhqot’in chiefs were invited to “peace talks” by the government, but they had been tricked: instead, they were arrested, tried, and hanged.

Begbie was conflicted about the decision to hang the five chiefs: he admitted the Tsilhqot’in had been “injudiciously treated” and was appalled at how the men had been tricked into arrest.  

Begbie’s statue was removed on the premise that it was a “symbol of the colonial era,” and taking it down is necessary as a step towards reconciliation with indigenous people. Local First Nations groups reportedly cheered as the statue was lifted away. However, in his time, Begbie was popular amongst First Nations chiefs. He spoke two indigenous languages, opposed efforts to displace First Nations from their land, and forced legislation that ensured First Nations women would receive their share of the estates of their English partners. 

In October, New Westminster city council unanimously approved a motion to rename Begbie Square and Begbie Street to Chief Ahan Square and Chief Ahan Street, after a chief that was hanged under Justice Begbie’s orders. 

2. Historical “Cecil Rhodes School” plaque removed in Vancouver, BC

L’École Bilingue in Vancouver, BC was called Cecil Rhodes School until 1977, and a plaque made of tile with the previous moniker sat at the back of the school basketball courts for years. 

However, in June, Vancouver school trustees voted to remove the plaque, on the basis that Cecil Rhodes was an exploitative 19th-century British imperialist and “notorious racist” that set the stage for apartheid in South Africa. 

Because they didn’t remove the monument earlier, the school board must present a plan for reconciliation with the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour) community.

3. Part of Peter Robertson Boulevard renamed to Guru Nanak Way in Brampton, ON

In October, Brampton City Council voted to rename part of Peter Robertson Boulevard “Guru Nanak Way” after the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, just in time to celebrate the Guru’s 550th birthday.

One of the councillors who introduced the motion, Gurpreet Dhillon, stated “Brampton is home to one of the largest Sikh populations in the world, and have [sic] contributed greatly to the social, economic, political, and cultural fabric of our great city.”

However, not everyone celebrated the decision. Peter Robertson, former mayor of Brampton from 1991-2000 and namesake of Peter Robertson Boulevard, was against the decision to rename part of the street after the founder of Sikhism. “It’s problematic and dangerous; you might be upsetting quite a few people by naming streets after religious figures,” he said. 

4. Amherst Street in Montreal becomes Ateteken Street

Montreal’s Amherst Street became Atateken Street after city council approved a name change in August. 

Lord Jeffery Amherst was a British general that led the capture of Montreal in 1760.  There is also evidence he suggested that the British intentionally infect indigenous tribes with smallpox by sending them smallpox-infected blankets. 

After the French surrender of Canada, local indigenous groups were angered by Amherst’s new policies that discontinued the French practice of providing supplies to indigenous groups in exchange for their friendship and assistance, which led to a rebellion that the British wished to suppress. In letters dating back to 1763, Amherst and Colonel Henry Bouquet exchanged words about using smallpox-infected blankets to “innoculate the Indians” during what was known as the Pontiac rebellion. 

In 2017, then-mayor of Montreal Denis Coderre said celebrating Amherst, “someone who wanted to exterminate Indigenous peoples,” wasn’t conducive to reconciliation, and announced the street’s name would be changed.

The street’s new name, Atateken, means “brotherhood” in the Mohawk language.

5. Monument of Samuel de Champlain faces a delayed return to Orillia, ON

In 2015, Parks Canada temporarily removed a monument of explorer Samuel de Champlain in Orillia, ON for restoration and reconditioning, but started to receive complaints of its “racist” and “hurtful” depictions of First Nations groups. The government then decided to hold off from returning it to its foundation. 

On the original monument, Champlain was surrounded by four indigenous characters: two looking up at a Jesuit priest as they sit at his feet, and two others sitting at the feet of a fur trader. 

According to the City of Orillia, the design of the statue represented “Champlain’s role in bringing Christianity and Commerce to New France.”

A plaque fixed to the monument stated it was “erected to commemorate the advent into Ontario of the white race” under Champlain’s leadership.

A working group congregated between October 2018 and June 2019 to study what they should do about the monument. Ultimately, they recommended the monument return but only featuring the figure of Champlain, without the four indigenous depictions. Another recommendation from the report was to develop “additional interpretive signage/pieces…with the participation of First Nations representatives to tell a historically accurate story of Samuel de Champlain and his relationship with First Nations.”

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