MONTREAL — The visage of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, has adorned the $10 bill of the country he helped create 153 years ago. But he has also been criticized as a racist who ruthlessly tried to wipe out Indigenous culture.
Yet after a crowd of cheering activists toppled his statue in a public square in Montreal over the weekend, politicians across the political spectrum in Canada denounced the act. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that while a country must inform itself about both the positive and negative aspects of its leaders, vandalism had no place in a country with the rule of law.
“Those kinds of acts of vandalism are not advancing the path toward greater justice and equality in this country,” he said.
Cities across the world have had reckonings over what to do with statues or monuments celebrating historical figures who had racist views or supported slavery. The debate has pitted those who argue that removing them is whitewashing history against those who say that keeping them causes pain and promotes discrimination.
Elijah Olise, 24, an actor and activist who supported tearing down the statue, said its prominent place in downtown Montreal glorified a historic relic with offensive views.
“People were tired of waiting for it to be removed,” he said. “In Canada, racism can be polite and covert and this statue was a symbol for people who still have Macdonald’s way of thinking. The statue was an open wound.”
He added that at a time when young people were agitating for justice, Mr. Trudeau “shouldn’t be telling Black, Indigenous and people of color he is disappointed in them.”
In recent years under Mr. Trudeau, Canada has sought to reconcile with its troubled colonial past. Mr. Trudeau has acknowledged the nation’s past “humiliation, neglect and abuse” of Indigenous people and vowed at the United Nations to improve their lives.
But after his comments on the statue’s toppling, he received blowback on social media — from people who said he did not speak out forcefully enough against the vandalism, and also from others who said he did not take a tough enough stance against Mr. Macdonald’s record.
In Quebec, Premier François Legault said he wanted to restore the toppled statue, which has been stored in a warehouse downtown.
“Whatever one might think of John A. Macdonald, destroying a monument in this way is unacceptable,” Mr. Legault wrote on Twitter. “We must fight racism, but destroying parts of our history is not the solution.”
But some scholars suggested the statue should be restored only if it were to include a plaque explaining the historic context.
In Montreal, the global movement in support of Black rights has spurred soul-searching about systemic racism in Canada. Activists defended the tearing down of the statue, which occurred during an anti-racism protest calling for defunding the police.
Writing on its Facebook page, the Coalition for BIPOC Liberation, argued that “racist monuments don’t deserve space.”
“Symbols of hate encourage the mental oppression of marginalized people,” it wrote next to a video of a crowd celebrating as the statue fell.
Montreal police are investigating the destruction of the statue, which had been previously toppled in 1992, on the anniversary of the 1885 hanging of Louis Riel, an Indigenous leader accused of high treason by Mr. Macdonald.
Youssef Amane, a spokesman for Montreal’s mayor, Valérie Plante, said the cost of restoring the statue would be at least $400,000 Canadian dollars. He said the options under consideration included returning the statue to its original place, showing it in a museum or reinstalling it, but adding a statue of an Indigenous hero nearby to act as a counterpoint.
He said City Hall hoped to add a plaque explaining Mr. Macdonald’s contributions as the first prime minister of Canada as well as the less savory aspects of his biography.
“The city of Montreal is in the process of trying to reconcile with its Indigenous citizens, and we want to consult with them before deciding what to do,” he said.
The toppling of the Macdonald statue, first erected in 1895, comes amid a rancorous debate about the legacy of the polarizing former political leader, lawyer and businessman. His name graces Canadian highways, schools and buildings, and he brokered the political deal that led to the creation of Canada.
In 2018, his face on the $10 bill was replaced with that of Viola Desmond, a Black businesswoman who was jailed for refusing to leave the whites-only area of a movie theater in Nova Scotia in 1946, a seminal moment in Canada’s pursuit of racial equality.
While historians credit Mr. Macdonald for uniting disparate provinces to form what became a successful liberal democracy, his many critics say he was an unabashed racist who pioneered a residential schooling program for Indigenous children, where their languages were banned, and where many were physically and sexually abused.
A national report commissioned by the government called the program “cultural genocide.”
In a sign of how the legacy of the residential schools continues to resonate in Canada, on Tuesday, the federal government said it would designate two as historic sites.
Mr. Macdonald also withheld food relief for Indigenous people in some areas during a famine until they moved to government-established reserves. His goal was to clear the path for a transcontinental railway in the 1880s. The railway physically united the country, which led to its western settlement and economic development.
Jason Kenney, the Conservative premier of Alberta, asked that the statue be sent to his province for repairs and accused a “mob” of being intent on vilifying the man who had forged Canada.
“As his biographer Richard Gwyn wrote, ‘no Macdonald, no Canada,’” Mr. Kenney wrote on Twitter. “Both Macdonald & the country he created were flawed but still great.”
But Jagmeet Singh, leader of the left-leaning New Democratic Party and the first nonwhite leader of a major Canadian political party, offered another view.
“Taking down a statue of him doesn’t erase him from history any more than honoring him out of context erases the horrors he caused,” Mr. Singh wrote on Twitter.
Myrna Lashley, an expert on race relations and assistant professor at McGill University, suggested putting the Macdonald statue in a museum.
“I don’t believe in vandalism,” she said. “But we can educate people about past wrongs.”
She added, “These acts are spurring an important discussion that needs to take place not only in Canada but in the world.”