Mother figure or colonial oppressor? Examining Queen Victoria's legacy after Winnipeg statue toppled


After a statue of Queen Victoria was pulled down on the Manitoba legislative grounds on Canada Day, two professors in the province say they want to set the record straight about the life and legacy of the British monarch.

Victoria reigned over the United Kingdom from 1837 until her death in 1901, a period marked by the unparalleled expansion of the British Empire, including continued expansion across what's now called Canada.

"Queen Victoria presided during some of the most brutal and expansive years of colonial history — when land was stolen the most, when things like the Indian Act [were] put into place," said Niigaan Sinclair, a Native studies professor at the University of Manitoba.

He says he can understand why on July 1, a small group of people taking part in the Every Child Matters walk — held in honour of children forced to attend residential schools — pulled down the statue of Queen Victoria at the Manitoba legislature. Red hand prints were painted on the statue and its base, and its head was severed and thrown in the Assiniboine River.

A smaller statue depicting Queen Elizabeth on the legislature grounds was also pulled down.

The response was likely prompted by anger and frustration, as more people confront the grim truths of Canada's residential school system and the country's colonial legacy.

British Empire's role in dispossessing Indigenous people

"We've got 150 years of brutal, draconian, terrible violence, much of it still continuing on the streets of Winnipeg in policies and laws, so it's with little surprise that people would turn to this," Sinclair said.

"Let's get some scope here. A statue being re-altered or edited or vandalized, whatever you want to call it, is nowhere near the kind of scope that Indigenous peoples continue to experience every day."

Adele Perry, the director of the Centre for Human Rights Research and a professor in the department of history at the U of M, says Queen Victoria and the British Empire had an "absolutely crucial role" in Canada's negotiation of treaties, residential schools and other systems that dispossessed Indigenous people.

Although she never visited Canada, Victoria reigned during the signing of the five numbered treaties that encompass the majority of Manitoba, wherein First Nations leaders entered into agreements with the Crown. 

The treaties are constitutionally recognized agreements that allowed the Canadian government to actively pursue agriculture, settlement, transportation links and resource development in exchange for payment or other promises, the Treaty Commission of Manitoba says.

Many First Nations considered the treaties sacred, living pacts that allowed the land and its bounties to be shared with the newcomers, and allowed for the creation of a shared future.

Critics have argued that shared future took a backseat to progress and Indigenous people got in the way.