When Montreal unveiled its new name for beleaguered Amherst Street – Atateken, a Mohawk word signifying ‘brotherhood between nations’ – Mayor Valerie Plante told the crowd gathered that this was a preliminary step towards reconciliation.
“What happened, for example, with Amherst, was absolutely unimaginable, horrible, but it happened. So we can’t erase history – I’m more in favour of creating dialogues,” said Plante.
Donovan King, a self-professed expert on Montreal’s “hidden histories” and founder of a new post-colonial tour group, makes a living on overlooked historical dialogues
While his tours normally deal with ghostly fanfare, Griffin Tours is more keenly focused on monuments, buildings and names that celebrate Quebec’s violent colonial past.
And there’s no shortage, according to King.
Take, for example, the bronze sculpture of “founding father” Jacques Cartier, which towers over a park in the Saint-Henri neighbourhood.
“He’s standing on a stump to signify the land that has yet to be cleared, and he’s also surrounded by four disembodied Aboriginal heads which of course signifies the genocide that’s still ongoing here. This is a very racist statue,” King explained.
“Quite frankly, I don’t think anyone within the settlers’ society would tolerate having their own disembodied heads on a statue spitting out water,” he added.
While Montreal’s public art website acknowledges the presence of the heads on the fountain, it makes no explanation as to their symbolism.
Or there’s the monument dedicated to the Sieur de Maisonneuve in Old Montreal – what King calls the “centerpiece” of the city’s tourism industry.
“The Sieur de Maisonneuve was hired by an organization called the ‘Notre Dame Society of Montreal for the Conversion of the Savage Peoples of New France,’” he explained. “I kid you not, it was actually called that.”
The statue boasts the figures of three of Montreal’s first “leaders’ – and the iron effigy of one man wearing a loincloth, labelled only “Iroquois.”
Around the monument are plaques loosely retelling the story of the capture of Montreal – including some unsavoury, and likely inaccurate moments in history according to King.
“The exploit de Place d’Armes is a French legend; we don’t know how much validity or truth there is to this,” he said. “But in a nutshell they say the Sieur de Maisonneuve singlehandedly blew the head off of a Mohawk leader here in this exact area.”
“They’re celebrating genocide on a statue in a public square – this is really unacceptable in the age of truth and reconciliation,” he added.
A plaque on the Bank of Montreal, also depicting the murder of an Indigenous leader, drew the ire of the Mohawk community and was replaced after concerns were raised.
The city itself, King said, is slow to mobilize where issues of history are concerned – based largely on fear of re-writing or erasing history.
“[But] this is revisionist history – that’s the problem people don’t realize. This type of history that’s glorifying genocide is revisionist,” King explained.
“There’s a lot of denial, a lot of white fragility happening, and that has to change,” he said.
Montreal, it should be noted, is the only North American city with a monopoly of tour guides.
During Expo 67, the city introduced bylaw G-2, which mandated all guides to be educated at the same school, and stick to the same script glorifying New France and its colonialist crusaders.
In a recent legal challenge, Human Rights lawyer Julius Grey called the law “contestable” based on its violation of free speech and its disregard for recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
After much prodding, King was able to convince Montreal’s only tourism school to revise its curriculum to be more inclusive of Indigenous realities, past and present.
“They never taught us we’re on Mohawk territory, they never taught us how to do a territorial acknowledgement,” said King. “They didn’t teach us any Mohawk vocabulary or any Indigenous perspectives – we never visited Kahnawake, we never had a First Nations speaker in the class.”
However, pointing out inconsistencies is an mission fraught with tension.
King said was banned from the tour guides’ association after posting activist content and pointing out anti-Indigenous rhetoric on their Facebook group.
He was once told there was no known Mohawk name for Mount Royal – the city’s summit – but after returning to city officials with the name “Otsirà:ke,” the organization in charge of the mountain stonewalled and refused to include it on their website.
But King isn’t alone in his efforts, it seems.
Anonymous anti-colonial activists vandalized a statue of John A. Macdonald, located in downtown’s Place du Canada – actually an ancestral burial site, King said– at least three times since January, and many, many times before.
But unlike other Canadian cities like Victoria, B.C., the city has no plans to remove it – instead spending thousands of dollars at a time to clean and wax the statue after each paint baptism.
“I personally think [the paint] improves the statue because at least it gives us an idea that there’s a problem with it, whereas if it wasn’t painted, a tourist would have no idea what this is all about,” he said.
Instead of removing or destroying the monuments altogether, King suggests relegating them all to one space – as was done with Communist statues in Europe – putting them behind glass in a museum, or in a comic twist, by adding Indigenous cultural symbols like the Kanontsistóntie: a mythological, cannibalistic creature from Haudenosaunee lore.
But change, he said, starts with being honest about Quebec’s tumultuous history.
“It’s very important to teach these students the truth, because then they can properly integrate into the society as an ally of those who want social change, instead of someone with more of a settler mentality, you know?” he said.