The Great Statue Debate

I am a regular columnist for The Carillon newspaper based in Steinbach.  Here is last week’s column. 

Steinbach just might have it right when it comes to public art. Have you ever noticed there are no statues of people in Steinbach?  I commented on that in a column I wrote in 2006. I had just spent a week in Savannah, Georgia a city full of statues of famous folks.  

anna shilstra

Anna Schilstra was Steinbach’s first female doctor in the early 1900s.

I came up with a list of people who had lived in Steinbach and might be good subjects for a statue- everyone from Anna Schilstra one of the first female doctors in Canada to Miriam Toews the celebrated author.   

Reading about the controversy regarding the recent removal of Sir John A. MacDonald’s statue from the front steps of Victoria’s City Hall I’ve rethought my suggestion that Steinbach should have statues of people. Probably the city has saved itself from lots of controversy that way.  

John_A_Macdonald_in_1880

The legacy of Sir John A. MacDonald is a complicated one.

The conflict over the removal of Sir John A. MacDonald’s statue is intense.  In Saturday’s Free Press, columnist Niigaan Sinclair voiced support for the statue’s removal and received over a hundred online comments. Most responders disagreed vehemently with Sinclair and made angry statements, some fairly racist in my opinion.

There are many Canadians who stand in solidarity with Victoria’s mayor Lisa Helps who after lengthy consultation with British Columbia indigenous leaders decided our first prime minister’s role as an architect of the residential school system was grounds for having his statue removed from such a prominent spot.  Other Canadians were livid about the statue’s removal and agreed with Toronto Star columnist Gwyn Dwyer who wrote a 2015 piece suggesting the country of Canada wouldn’t even exist without Sir John A. MacDonald. Dwyer admits our first prime minister had faults and made many errors but believes his enormous contributions need to be recognized.  

I am sure the controversy about statues of Sir John A. MacDonald will be an ongoing subject for debate as his role in Canada’s history continues to be re-examined. 

louis riel st. boniface statue_1024

The original statue of Louis Riel caused lots of controversy

Statues can cause lots of headaches. When it was finally decided in 1970 that a statue of Louis Riel should grace the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature an expensive artwork was commissioned.  It showed Louis Riel with his face contorted in anguish. His body was naked and twisted.  Artist Marcien Lemay who created the statue said he wanted to show Riel as a martyr who had suffered for his people.

The statue caused a great deal of controversy when it was unveiled. Some people thought it was ridiculous to spend so much money on a statue of someone who had been mentally unstable and had been responsible for the murder of Thomas Scott. Many other people however found the rather grotesque statue an insult to both Louis Riel and the Metis people. They said Riel had been a great statesman, the founder of Manitoba and his statue should reflect that.

legislative building louis riel statue

A traditional sculpture of Louis Riel now graces the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature.

In 1994 the offensive statue was moved to the grounds of St. Boniface College and a new more traditional statue of Riel erected on the river front side of the legislature grounds.

Artwork can invite honest dialogue and inspire important conversations about values and perspectives but it seems statues of people are often the cause of ugly conflict. Perhaps Steinbach has saved itself lots of headaches by having different kinds of public art. 

love for learning sculpture steinbach

Love of Learning Sculpture- Steinbach Cultural Arts Center

There’s a colourful sculpture at the Cultural Arts Centre about an idea.  It is called Love of Learning.  And then there is the sculpture of that giant car which pays tribute to one of the city’s bedrock businesses. As far as I know they haven’t caused any controversy. Steinbach just might have it right when it comes to public art.  

Other posts……..

Agnes MacDonald’s Railroad Adventure

A Century is Only a Spoke

Time to Stop Honoring People With Statues? 

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