In protest of the 751 unmarked graves discovered at a former residential school in Saskatchewan, on June 24th, the doors of St. Paul’s Co-Cathedral in Saskatoon were painted red with the words “We Were Children.”
Despite being since removed, this act of protest has created a stir amongst locals and sparked conversation regarding whether it was right or wrong.
According to a CBC article, the priest at the cathedral, Father Stefano Penna, states that although he understands the emotions behind the gesture, “This objectively is a crime. This is vandalism. This shouldn’t be done to any crosswalks with the rainbow flag or any mosque or any synagogue,” and that “we don’t ever solve anything that was hateful in the past by continuing to hate.”
Meanwhile, in the same article, numerous bystander accounts did not consider the paintings as “hateful” at all, but rather “beautiful,” “peaceful,” and “the most amazing experience [they have] seen in Saskatchewan, ever.”
On this note, disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, and archaeology have provided entirely different perspectives on an undoubtedly complicated situation, and that is the difference between vandalism and counter-monumentality.
Accordingly, it is important to draw a clear line between the pointless destruction of property and those made in an effort to shed light on past injustices that have not been remedied.
Most vandalism, although deliberate in its nature, does not hold any societal significance and can be written off as petty crime. Meanwhile, counter-monumentality is defined as a specific type of art that defies imposing societal forces in the form of monuments.
An article “Counter-monumentality and the vulnerability of memory” by James F Osbourne states: “active and deliberate interventions in traditional monuments, illustrates how the erection of monuments exposes the inherent fragility of memory.”
In other words, monuments are constructed to honour a specific social memory (example: Christopher Columbus discovered America, George Washington believed all men were created equal, etcetera.) And yet, memory is flawed, and the accounts that were wholly believed in the past may not always be true, or rather, the entire truth.
As time goes on, the public will continue to unearth new information that will challenge the collective image society has of a particular person, group, or establishment.
For example, Christopher Columbus never stepped foot in America, George Washington owned slaves, and the 51 deaths that were originally registered at Canada’s largest residential school becomes 215, which becomes 751, which continues to grow past one thousand.
In turn, acts of counter-monumentality reflect these revelations. Sure, they may not last forever, but they will become a significant part of the monument’s history; as it should have been from the beginning. In fact, counter-monumentality was especially prevalent throughout the Black Lives Matter movement, where the protestors would de-pedestal confederate statues alongside many other symbols of oppression.
Furthermore, although Father Stefano made a valid point in saying these acts of protest may not solve anything that happened in the past, the awareness it creates can help these harmful acts against Indigenous peoples from recurring in the future.
(And they are recurring still. Thousands of Indigenous women and children are still disappearing each year and Indigenous peoples are still facing systemic discrimination to this day).
Whether the act against the Saskatoon church was “right:” or “wrong” (societally, legally, morally, etc.) is beside the point, or at least beside the point of this conversation. This act of protest has achieved what it has set out to do, and that is to draw attention to the severity of these revelations and the desperate need for action.