Collective Memory in Transition: Macdonald, Cornwallis and Statue Removal in Canada
This thesis documents the 2018 removals of the John A. Macdonald statue in Victoria, British Columbia and the Edward Cornwallis statue in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Writings on memory by Maurice Halbwachs and Pierre Nora form the central theoretical basis of the thesis. These authors have examined memory as a group-based phenomenon, as well as the connection between collective memory and physical objects such as statues. They have also addressed the issue of presentism, how our interpretation of the past is shaped by present concerns. The destruction of cultural sites in times of social change, which results in the vulnerability of memory tied to these sites, is also explored. Portraits are examined as a category of art that is especially vulnerable to targeted destruction. The Balkan Conflicts of the 1990s, the end of communism in Eastern Europe, and the Spanish colonization of the Americas provide examples of cultural destruction where collective memory has been targeted, contested or lost. This thesis argues that the Macdonald and Cornwallis statue removals are connected to a shift in Canadian collective memories towards acknowledging the perspectives of Indigenous peoples. Macdonald and Cornwallis traditionally have been remembered favourably as founders of Canada and Halifax, respectively. In contrast, many Indigenous people view Macdonald primarily as an architect of residential schools, and see Cornwallis in the context of his scalping proclamations against the Mi’kmaq during his governorship of Nova Scotia. The historical basis for the conflicting memories of each man, and the history of each statue’s commission, raising, and more recent removal are examined. Further insight into the Canadian public’s perspectives regarding the commemoration of these figures, and the removal of their statues, is provided by a review of public opinion polling.