Arts & Culture / Politics / The Reading Room / Vol. 2 No. 4

Cultural Memory and Public Space: Dispatches from Canada

Yashua Klos, Mask (Non Functional) with Pyramid Headdress

Image Credit: Yashua Klos, Mask (Non-Functional) with Pyramid Headdress, (2014). Paper construction of woodblock prints on archival paper 60″ x 45″. Courtesy of the artist.

As in the United States and England, statues have been toppled and street names debated in Canada. The statue of John A. Macdonald came down in Montreal on August 29, 2020. Ma(d)Donald you ask? Well, in this case, the first prime minister of Canada (1867–1873, 1878–1891), associated with completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway from coast to coast, but also responsible for the head tax implemented through the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885; and, oh yes, the Canadian Residential Schools that separated indigenous children from their parents, an institutional practice deemed genocide by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada in 2015 (Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada 1).

Like current prime minister Justin Trudeau, Montreal mayor Valérie Plante condemned the toppling, suggesting that “it is better to put [such monuments] in context rather than remove them” (Curry.) This stance also seems to be the position of French president Macron, who thinks that the statue of Colbert should stay in front of the French National Assembly —Jean-Baptist Colbert, that is, not Stephen, who was responsible for the Code Noir that governed slavery in the French Caribbean and unofficially also in French Canada and Montreal. “The Republic will not . . . take down any of its statues but lucidly look at our history and our memory together,” Macron said in a televised address (Bryant). The practical consequences of such declarations will remain to be seen. Perhaps it is too early to say whether Colbert statues will stay in France—albeit contextualized—and those of John A. MacDonald in Montreal and elsewhere in Canada; but for now, they still dominate public space, broadcasting relatively unimpeded the values and views of history associated with the lives and (mis)deeds of the figures they represent.

Both in France and in Canada, however, contested territories of public space are beginning to change, as the more frequent acknowledgement of slavery in both countries seems to indicate. A conspicuous French instance is the stunning Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery (Mémorial de l’Abolition de l’Esclavage) in Nantes, a city that like Bordeaux was one of the most important slave ports in France.1 Slavery was also part and parcel of New France and of Montreal. For instance, the names of Marguerite d’Youville (the first Canadian-born saint) and James McGill are very present in the city’s geography, even though they—along with members of the clergy, the army, and notaries, doctors, and printers—were slave holders.2 In the case of McGill, a petition has been launched to remove his statue from the university bearing his name, but its art historian and professor Charmaine Nelson thinks it is also time to rename her university (Loewen). While these debates continue, the Montreal city council already decided in February 2012 to endow a space close to Old Montreal’s city hall with the name Place Marie-Josèphe Angélique, in honour of a black enslaved woman from Madeira, who was hanged for allegedly setting fire to the city in 1734. Montreal at that time was a small settlement comprised mostly of wooden buildings, where fires had previously raged.3

Although the case of Angélique has received considerable attention, until recently it had remained a bit of an exception. In general, the topic of slavery in Canada—officially abolished in 1834—is less popular here than the country’s subsequent role in the Underground Railroad. I will return to Montreal in a moment, but first let me note that, until the advent of Black Lives Matter, the topic of Canadian slavery was mostly absent from discussions of public space in Toronto—although some of its streets and squares are named after Canadian slave holders such as Jacques “James” Baby (pronounced “Babby”), William Jarvis, or Peter Russell.

A corrupt politician and gambling addict, Peter Russell was a member of the Family Compact, an influential group that dominated the politics of Upper Canada in the early 19th century. Of the sixteen members of Upper Canada’s first parliament, six were slave holders, like Russell himself (Bunch). Toronto has a neighbourhood called Baby Point (see Image) and a Jarvis Street, sites that only recently have become the subject of activist intervention (Lavoie); among the four streets named after Russell in Toronto was Russell Street, which happened to run right through the University of Toronto downtown campus. In March 2020, however, it was finally renamed after a former University of Toronto professor, Dr. Ursula Franklin. Such changes can help to produce public discussion about Canadian slavery and transform the toponymic surface of a city; the name of slaveholders should not adorn squares and streets. On the other hand, the fact of Canadian slavery itself should not become less visible in a sanitized version of Toronto: It needs to be part of a critical memory culture. Take the case of Peggy Pompadour, who was among those enslaved by Russell, and found herself repeatedly imprisoned at his behest. While a street named for her would be a good idea, she now reclaims Toronto space also in two sound walks by the performance artist and educator Camille Turner: Hush Harbour and The Resistance of Peggy Pompadour. Both sound pieces rely on “archival research and speculative fiction to bring to life a silenced piece of Toronto’s history” (Turner, Peggy). They also produce a different experience of Toronto’s public space, evoking its history not only by exposing white slaveholders but also by focusing on black lives.

For another example of how black Canadian art and history drive critical interventions in contested public space, let me return to toponymic change in Montreal. From Old Montreal and the Place Marie-Josèphe Angélique, we’ll take the subway to Montreal’s southwest, where the old working-class neighbourhood of Saint-Henri is located along the Lachine Canal. Our stop, the station Lionel-Groulx, is named after a French-Canadian Nationalist and historian who is still revered by many Quebeckers. Unfortunately, he was also an anti-Semite who supported the boycott of Jewish businesses during WW II. A few steps south of the station, turn right onto Rue Deslisle and you will find Union United Church. When jazz pianist Oscar Peterson was born, his family lived next to the church in what was at one point its parsonage. Peterson’s name is still associated with the church. He worshipped and was married here, played piano (like Oliver Jones, another Montreal jazz great), and even gave lessons. The church saw visits by Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and, earlier, by Marcus Garvey—whom Peterson mentioned positively in his autobiography (Peterson and Palmer 28-29). The current incarnation of the UNIA Liberty Hall is right around the corner on Rue Notre Dame.

It is not surprising, then, that a petition to rename the nearby subway station after Peterson recently accrued over 26,000 signatures, to be submitted to the Société de Transport de Montréal and its board of directors (Hussain). Like other public spaces, however, this one too is marked by earlier claims and inscriptions that make it subject to memorial contestation. A counter-petition favours the status quo, even if it received less than half as many signatures, and a first attempt to give the station Peterson’s name failed in 2008, shortly after his death, officially due to a 2006 moratorium on station-name changes. Persistence, however, may be the key. It is worthwhile remembering that Peterson himself broke many barriers, both on the keyboard and beyond. In the 1940s, Montreal’s posh Ritz-Carlton Hotel attempted to prevent Peterson from playing at one of its events, but the manager’s racist attempt failed. Peterson became one of the first black musicians to play there (Lees 51-52, 59).

Disrupting the unimpeded symbolic reproduction of hegemonic public space—the renaming of subway stations, streets, and squares or the toppling of statues—will hardly end police violence and systemic racism. In addition, many politicians seem to understand acts of symbolic recognition as the completion of a process, not as a sign of its wider beginning. And yet, a critical memory culture that also insists on active participation in the production of public space through naming is part of a larger and necessary process. Nefarious signifiers that configure the perception of public space are more than just traces of previous racism; they continue to be part of its continuing virulence, signaling the values they represent over and over, in the present and into the future. I think it is time in Canada, among many other things, for Oscar Peterson Stations, Archie Alleyne Drives, Peggy Pompadour Squares, Mary Ann Shadd Crescents, Viola Desmond Boulevards, and Stanley Grizzle Streets.4

W. Siemerling, 2020

Photo Credit: W. Siemerling, 2020.


1 France first abolished slavery in 1794 but resumed the practice under Napoleon in 1802; it was finally ended in 1848. A National Center for the Remembrance of Slavery and its Abolition was founded in 2006; see, and Edouard Glissant, Mémoires des esclavages: La fondation d’un centre national pour la mémoire des esclavages et de leurs abolitions (Paris: Gallimard 2007).
2 See Marcel Trudel, Canada’s Forgotten Slaves: Two Centuries of Bondage. Transl. George Tombs (Montreal: Vehicule Press 2013). Many of those enslaved in what is now Quebec were Indigenous.
3 See Afua Cooper, The Hanging of Angélique. The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal (Toronto: HarperCollins), 2006; Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 91-120; and the exploration website “Torture and the Truth: Angelique and the Burning of Montreal,” Great Unresolved Mysteries in Canadian History: (
4 The list could of course happily go on and on beyond these few, arbitrarily chosen examples. Archie Alleyne was a celebrated Toronto drummer who also accompanied the likes of Billie Holiday and Lester Young, and toured with Oliver Jones. Mary Ann Shadd, an activist, teacher, lawyer, and author of A Plea for Emigration (1852), is thought to have been the first black female North American newspaper publisher and editor; in 1853, she founded one of Canada’s most important early black papers, the Provincial Freeman. Viola Desmond was taken to court when she refused to leave a whites-only movie theatre section in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia in 1946. Stanley Grizzle was a labour union activist and the author of My Name’s Not George: The Story of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters: Personal Reminiscences of Stanley G. Grizzle (Toronto: Umbrella Press, 1998). While these particular individuals have been honoured in various ways, their names and those of many other African Canadians could helpfully adorn numerous other public spaces in Canada.

Works Cited

Bryant, Lisa. “In France, Street Names Carry a Colonial Burden.” Voice of America, 16 June 2020,

Bunch, Adam. “Toronto’s First Truly Terrible Leader – the Slave-Owning Gambling Addict Peter Russell.” Spacing Toronto, 28 May 2013,

Curry, Bill. “Statue Debate Reignites after Protesters Topple Montreal’s John A. Macdonald Monument.” The Globe and Mail, 31 Aug. 2020,

Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Website, 2015,

Hussain, Naveed. “Petition for the Lionel-Groulx Metro Station to Be Renamed Oscar Peterson Station.”,

Lavoie, Joanna. “’Clandestine’ Plaques Inform Public about Toronto’s History of Enslavement.”, 26 Aug. 2020,

Lees, Gene. Oscar Peterson: the Will to Swing. Toronto: Lester and Orpen Dennys, 1988, pp. 51–2, 59.

Loewen, Claire. “Taking down Statue of James McGill Is Only One Step in Fighting Systemic Racism, Students Say | CBC News.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 14 June 2020,

Peterson, Oscar, and Richard Palmer. A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson.

London and New York: Continuum, 2002, pp. 28-9.

Turner, Camille. “Hush Harbour.” Camille Turner RSS, .

Turner, Camille. “The Resistance of Peggy Pompadour.” Camille Turner RSS,

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