In 1992 a major statue of one of the founders of Canadian confederation was decapitated in a local park in Montreal. Although poorly maintained up until that time, rusty and neglected, the decapitation provoked a major outcry from Canadians across the country. To make matters worse, the head was stolen. A year passed and no effort was been made to replace the statue or repair it. Pigeons now roost on the remains and the statue has deteriorated further although a new head has been put on it. From time to time journalists have commented on the history of this loss but the symbolism of the gesture will never be forgotten nor did the symbolic death of the federal spirit in Quebec simply reappear when the statue was restored.
There is a sense in which this sculpture, both in its full and fragmented form, stands for historical realities which transcend its status as an object and are a clue to its transformation into an image. The aura of the statue (negative or positive) seems to bring history, the man himself and notions of the nation state into a synoptic grid from which nearly any set of meanings can be drawn. So complex is this interplay, so naturalized are its premises, that the task of “writing” about this history of the image of Sir John A. Macdonald will be richly endowed from the start.
It will move through a number of sometimes contradictory and sometimes similar levels of meaning, creating a sphere of relationships in constant need of interpretation and reinterpretation. The process will oscillate between the micro-historical and the macro-historical and even then the terms of that interaction will produce new and different relationships dependent on context and the subjective choices of the interpretator.
In other words the statue is both a powerful presence and an incidental component of what we do to it, the base of a hierarchy of interpretations upon which we build and the reason we tear at the statue’s foundations. Although headless, the statue retained all the qualities which allowed it to be identified with Sir John A. Macdonald. As a focal point of the debate about the future of Canada it mattered little whether the head was there or not. Yet as an image, the loss of the head brought the arguments of history into the forefront and suggests a rather paradoxical homology in which image and history are one, in which the visual and the tactile co-exist through the absence of the eyes of one of the founders of modern day Canada.