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Governor General wants to help both sides in statue debate understand each other

WINNIPEG — People on both sides of the debate over the destruction of statues linked to colonization can come together and learn to respect each other, Gov. Gen. Mary Simon said Wednesday.
Gov. Gen. Mary Simon talks to media at the Manitoba Legislature in Winnipeg on Wednesday, June 7, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

WINNIPEG — People on both sides of the debate over the destruction of statues linked to colonization can come together and learn to respect each other, Gov. Gen. Mary Simon said Wednesday.

Simon held meetings at the Manitoba legislature, including a half-hour get-together with Premier Heather Stefanson and an hour-long meeting with Indigenous leaders.

Reporters asked Simon about statues of Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria on the legislature grounds that were hauled down and damaged two years ago in a protest over the deaths of children at residential schools. She said her office is apolitical but can help people understand each other.

"I have the convening power to be able to bring people together to discuss these things," said Simon, Canada's first Indigenous governor general.

"It's not just about the statues, but about the long-term effects that colonization has had on Indigenous people. I think it's an issue that needs a lot of discussion between different authorities, different people. And for me to be part of that, I'm in it to try and ensure that everybody understands each other."

The Queen Victoria statue had its head removed and was damaged beyond repair. The Queen Elizabeth statue suffered less damage, underwent a series of repairs and was reinstalled last week.

Over the weekend, someone spray-painted the words "colonizer" and "killer" on the statue's base. The graffiti was cleaned up by the next day. Winnipeg police said they are investigating.

Simon said the statues are reminders to some of the history of colonization.

"I think it's really important for Indigenous people to express themselves in whichever form they want, but it's also very important for us to recognize that the effects of colonization and residential schools have had such a devastating impact on the cultures and identity of Indigenous people, that there is frustrations. There's anger," she said. 

"And they will, from time to time, express that anger and the frustrations. For me, as a representative of the King, my role is to help understand what's going on. So in a way, I can't say whether it's right or wrong. "

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs criticized the Manitoba government for reinstalling the Queen Elizabeth statue before putting up a planned memorial to Chief Peguis. That statue, which is still in the design phase, is to be the first statue of a First Nations person on the legislature grounds.

"At this time, First Nations citizens are still actively seeking healing from the wounds of colonization and genocide inflicted by residential schools, and … replacing the Queen Elizabeth statue as quickly as this before erecting one that honours the history of First Nations in this province shows a lack of commitment to reconciliation and accountability by this province," Grand Chief Cathy Merrick said in a press release Wednesday.

Grand Chief Jerry Daniels, of the Southern Chiefs' Organization, which represents 34 First Nations communities, said he discussed treaties and land claims in the meeting with Simon.

"The land has been taken from us, and it continues to this day," Daniels told reporters after the meeting.

"There has to be some sort of reconciling of the accounts when it comes to the land."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2023. 

Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press