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Colonial statues: vandalism or artistic improvement

By: 
John Bell

July 19, 2020

In a fit of civic improvement and spirit of public service, three Black Lives Matter TO activists painted some Toronto monuments pink.

The statues were of John A. Macdonald, first prime minister and author of Indigenous genocide, residing on the lawn in front of the Ontario legislature; Egerton Ryerson, the architect of the residential school system, living on Ryerson University campus; and King Edward VII, mounted on his charger in the centre of Queen’s Park.

The activists were arrested, held for the better part of a day without access to their legal counsel, and threatened that if they did not sign draconian agreements limiting their rights they would not be released. Only a large, loud solidarity rally outside Toronto Police Services 52 Division, that lasted most of the night, was successful in freeing the three.

News stories focus on the Macdonald and Ryerson statues “vandalism”. I got to wondering why Eddie 7, king from 1901 to 1910, was being snubbed. Does no one care about the welfare of this symbol of Britain’s imperial decline? Don’t all statues matter?

To begin with, Edward is a second hand, gently used statue. He used to rear over the people of Delhi, India. But following independence Indian officials had the good sense to remove public reminders of colonial rule. Eddie was put in storage, and his fate debated.

Rather than see him melted down, a Toronto patriot, patron of the arts, Tory MP and multi-millionaire named Harry Jackman made the Indian government an offer. He would take Eddie off their hands and pay $10,000 (no small sum in the early 60s) to have him and the horse he rode in on shipped to Toronto.

(The super wealthy Jackman family have been imposing their questionable tastes in “public” art for generations. Harry’s son Hal, later to serve as Lieutenant Governor of Ontario during the Mike Harris years, commissioned the Canadian Airmen’s Memorial – better known as Gumby Goes to Heaven – at the intersection of University and Dundas. The decision to install the monstrosity was made entirely behind closed doors, and met with great outcry from artists and the public. The statue and the process that foisted it on Toronto are textbook examples of all that is wrong with “public” art. But I digress; back to the saga of Eddie 7.)

So where to put Edward? U of T had recently donated a park north of the legislature to the city. Why not put him there? Almost no one remembers that the spot was used for the gallows back in the day when executions were public spectacles. Jackman rounded up donations from his friends and built the plinth. And so King Ed, astride Mr. Ed, finally found his new home in 1969.

Now, 1969 was not exactly the days of yore. And the anachronistic symbol of a dead empire was not universally welcomed. Suggestions that he should reside at either the Art Gallery of Ontario or the royal Ontario Museum were politely but firmly refused. The arts community was variously outraged or ironically amused.

An artist at York University, Michael Greenwood, told the Globe and Mail at the time, “I think it would be delightful if the statue were installed as a kind of playground. It would be disastrous to regard it as a work of art, but as a campy symbol of the British Empire it would be perfect. Particularly if it were painted in Sergeant Pepper colours!”

It took almost 50 years, but the BLM painters were just fulfilling an artistic mandate.

All this explains why Edward VII is at best laughable. It doesn’t explain why he is omitted from various outraged news reports.

We can only speculate – who knows what goes through the minds of corporate news editors. Here’s my guess. Year after year, adorable engineers from U of T would parade to Queen’s Park, replete with marching band and hard hats, and paint the genitals of Eddie’s rearing stallion bright red. No one ever objected, at least no one who mattered, and certainly no one was ever arrested.

I’ll venture another guess. Many of those engineers are among the harrumphing U of T alumni today writing letters to the editor decrying the “thoughtless vandalism” of these precious monuments.

So-called public art that is imposed on us, to fit the whims and agenda of the 1%.  They are monuments that obscure rather than reveal our history. A rising movement has every right to pass judgement on statues celebrating the system that oppresses them.

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