Over the past year, the statue of Queen Victoria in Willow River Park, formerly Victoria Park, had red paint thrown on it many times. Each time, the City of Kitchener paid thousands of dollars to clean the paint and refinish the statue.
The city had a council meeting on June 8, where the majority of delegates advocated for immediate removal of the statue followed by a consultation process. Some delegates voiced dissent and regional staff presented a plan for an equity-driven consultation process that would last a year.
Elin Moorlag Silk, Project Manager in the Mayor’s task force for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, presented a plan for an equity-driven consultation process. The process would take around one year and have research, engagement, education and results stages following which regional staff would follow the council’s directions.
However, many delegates advocated for the process to be trauma-driven. David Alton, lived expertise working group facilitator at the Social Development Centre Waterloo Region, said an equity-driven process would force marginalized folks to relive their trauma and put it up for debate. In a trauma-informed process, the focus of the conversation would not be the statue but the harm that different communities within the region have experienced.
“Their equity model is flawed and is not incorporating therapeutic principles into it…how can you do actually equity driven work without acknowledging trauma, without acknowledging harm and conflict?,” they said. “But that is not doing anything to be explicit about the history of colonization, about the history of why the status statue was put up by a white supremacist group that was seeking to do white supremacy with the statute.”
Alton said consultation is a neutral process but neutrality is inherently white supremacist.
“You can’t separate these narratives of trauma, and so the therapeutic approach is to directly name those and then build a process around that,” Alton said.
Angie Hallman, a councillor for Ward 1 from the Township of Wilmot, shared her experience in dealing with the statues on the Prime Ministers path last year. Initially, council voted unanimously to remove the Sir John A. MacDonald statue before conducting consultations with the community. The remaining four statues were eventually removed as well.
Both the statues on the Prime Ministers path and the Queen Victoria statue are tied intimately with white supremacy. As Justin Buhr summarized in his delegation, the statue was commissioned by the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, a group focused on promoting and supporting the British Empire after the Boer War in 1899. They also lobbied for anti-immigration measures against racialized groups.
The group commissioned the statue of Queen Victoria, which was officially dedicated in 1911. Although the IODE is now a charitable organization, its white supremacist is history is both undeniable and unforgettable.
“It is super important for us to understand the history behind these monuments and who put them there in the first place. Almost everywhere you look you see in the city we give honour to those who orchestrated white supremacy and genocide on a massive scale,” Buhr said.
John Gazzolla, councillor for Ward 3 in Kitchener, asked whether all stories and all voices do not deserve to be heard equally. He asked if colonialism has only caused harm or if any good has come from colonialism.
Melissa Bowman, who has been involved with the Victoria Park Neighbourhood Association for over 11 years, said the statue should be removed prior to consultation. She drew parallels between learning Canadian history.
“Storytelling is an important and effective method for passing along a community’s beliefs and values, however, as I grew older, I learned more about those stories, stories that were filled with violence, pain and terror,” Bowman said.
“The only reason those were shared in Sunday School was because they had been sanitized, completely removed of the parts that adults assumed would be inappropriate to share with children. But as an adult, having learned the truth behind those stories, I can no longer hold on to those sanitized versions simply because they make me feel more comfortable than reality,” she said.
Hallman also said that the stories being told are biased and more education is needed. Many people, especially immigrants, are unaware of Canada’s treaties with Indigenous populations and how they were not upheld or the genocides perpetuated by colonial forces in Canada.
“[That] education starts immediately among being welcomed. We need to do more. They will firmly say education is what’s happened and then people always say we need to be, it needs to be continued education. Not like that grade five exam that you can’t remember to be nice to be there always, for that great relationship building for going forward together,” she said.
“Every individual is in a game where we can only go forward with the tools that the education system has given us and or your willingness as an adult to continue your own education. I think that that’s, that’s for every human is that I hope more people take the time,” Hallman said.
In Wilmot, during their consultation process, people actively associated with white supremacist groups came into and disrupted the community. Alton said that, should the Queen Victoria statue remain standing during Kitchener’s consultation process, the number of people and the harm they cause would likely be greater.
Hallman said the Chinese community in Wilmot was instrumental in the conversation about the statues on the Prime Ministers Path. Immigrant and second- or greater generations populations with roots in formerly colonized countries are impacted by memorials that celebrate colonizers that caused harm.
Berry Vrbanovic, mayor of Kitchener, followed up with regional staff asking if it is safe to assume that other members of the community had different opinions. Alton said that council should be aware of many concepts and information discussed during the meeting since the Prime Ministers Path in Wilmot was first considered in Kitchener.
“I was livid with Vrbanovic, the way he had received his information and then immediately didn’t respond to any of the delegates. And then sorry, asking staff…leading questions to literally undermine everything,” Alton said. “And so then he kept trying to change the question to try and wheedle his way to getting a justification from staff to do nothing, to not do anything. I was really shocked.”
Sarah Marsh, councillor for Ward 9 in Kitchener, tabled a motion to remove the statue before beginning consultation but it did not go through.