FOR THE GAZETTE
The ‘Holding Court’ statue of Sir John A Macdonald was removed from Picton’s Main Street Tuesday morning and will be placed in storage while municipal staff determine next steps for the sculpture’s location.
The statue stood in front of the Picton Public Library on Picton’s Main Street, which County resident Shannon Helm said symbolizes ‘fear’ and threatens the safety of local Indigenous residents.
Helm, who has two Indigenous daughters, told council of her history working as an educator in a fly-in Cree community, where she became well aware of the ongoing impact residential schools have on indigenous families.
“As adults and as non-Indigenous people, we can feel offended by a statue. We can feel horrified by the colonial violence that we have benefitted from, but for Indigenous children the feeling this history invokes is fear. Fear that the government is coming to take them, too. For me, the statue of John A Macdonald is not only a celebration of a man who legislated genocide; the statue is also a symbol of colonialism, the patriarchy and white supremacy,” she said. “The entire country is beginning to realize that Canada is built on a genocide.”
During the four-and-a-half hour special council meeting Monday, 38 people provided comments on the issue, with only three speaking in favour of keeping the statue in its current space.
The municipality’s procedural bylaw that allows no more than 30 minutes of public comment was waived at the onset of the virtual meeting Monday night to allow for all pre-registered residents to speak.
The special meeting was held in light of last week’s discovery of the mass unmarked grave of 215 children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. Its intent was to discuss public safety and contractual obligations for the sculpture.
“By now, we are all aware of the grim discovery of the mass grave of 215 unidentified children at the site of the former residential school in Kamloops, BC. I would like to express my sincere condolences and those of members of council, our municipal staff members and all residents of Prince Edward County to the Tk’emlúpsem te Secwépemc First Nation, the remaining members of the families of the victims who will be affected by this discovery as more details emerge, and to the friends who offered support to them as they endured the unimaginable, emotional pain of not knowing what happened to their loved ones,” Mayor Steve Ferguson shared.
Council decided in November 2020 the sculpture would remain in its current location while staff create a public art policy by Sept. 2021, and honour contract obligations to consult with the Macdonald Group and artist Ruth Abernathy, along with the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, for contextualized wording to accompany the statue.
CAO Marcia Wallace said in the past seven months, the art policy is well underway, though wording has proven difficult to draft.
Wallace told council no one is satisfied that the wording, so far, answers the community’s concerns. She noted information on the County’s website has been collected as a way to offer a richer history to educate community members.
“We will likely never get consensus,” Wallace said. She said removal is easy, involving a couple of hours of staff time. The remainder of time will involve finding places, options and defining the history that will be told.
Valery Ross raised concerns in respect to the public consultation done on the topic, asking, “Can you be confident that your public consultation has been done in an inclusive way?”
“If honouring Indigenous ways of thinking was not an explicit consideration in your process design, then the answer is no,” she said. “From what I have seen, this process has privileged those with a certain type of power; the same kind of power that has been systematically stripped away from Indigenous people for generations.”
Ross, along with countless other community members who made comments, emphasized the removal of the statue will not erase history.
“We need more than an amended plaque. We have an opportunity here to move forward in a good way; to take a step forward towards reconciliation. I hope you will act on it. I hope you will keep the County a place that we can all be proud of,” she said.
Fern Dias, past member of the County’s heritage advisory working group, shared this view, saying one of the greatest distractions when it comes to removing statues is the argument that to remove a statue is to tamper with or erase history.
“This is such nonsense. It is difficult to know where to begin. Statues are not history. They represent historical figures. They may have been set up to mark a person’s contribution but they themselves are not history,” she explained. “I believe more people will know the deeds of Macdonald more as a result of the statue being taken down than as a result of it being put up. The statue represents a sanitized, partial and selective version of history based on toxic nostalgia; a remembrance of the good old days, but remember, those days were only good for a select few. The fact remains for many this piece of bronze represents the worst of our country and as we saw just last week, brings out the worst in our County.”
Dias referenced the vigil that took place last week in downtown Picton, where around 200 people gathered at the statue to honour the 215 children at Kamloops.
“The shoes which represented 215 murdered Indigenous children were violently removed from the location of Picton’s vigil. Imagine if we cared about Indigenous children as much as we cared about statues. The County needs to do better, it needs to be a place where everyone feels safe and included,” she said.
Councillor Phil St. Jean told council the demonstration highlighted concerns surrounding public safety and the sculpture which was vandalized on at least three occasions.
“I believe we do need to address that. Now is the right time to relocate Sir John A Macdonald. It is a flashpoint in our community that is not going to go away and I am uncomfortable seeing members of our community who are peacefully protesting and voicing their opinions on the street, being attacked.” he said. “I am also upset with certain members attacking a piece of artwork. This is causing much strife in our community.”
Talia Epstein said she was present at the protest and feels the statue endangers public safety.
“Having a statue of a racist and genocidal man sitting next to our public library endangers the mental and physical safety of our Indigenous neighbours and all people of colour who would have suffered greatly under the government of John A Macdonald,” she said. “We are creating a situation that can easily be avoided, in which marginalized people within our community who have already suffered so greatly in the County and who already have to fight so hard to have their voices hear, feel unsafe walking down their main street entering their public library – a place which needs to be safe and accessible for all members of the community.”
Lenny Epstein yielded his time to Talia, his daughter, but said after previously voting in favour of implementing the statue during his time on County council, he is now in favour of its removal.
County business owner Natalie Wollenberg said it provides hope that the topic was back up for discussion considering the “exceptional disappointment of council’s decision last time, where white privilege was thought to be of more importance than the genocide of the Indigenous people of Canada; where racism was more important than the lives of Indigenous men, women and children.”
“How privileged are we to not have gone through the trauma of residential schools and also the trauma that is still there to this day affecting Indigenous families generation after generation? How dare we keep this statue that represents hate and racism because you believe it was part of our history?” she asked. “The fact that this decision wasn’t made earlier by council speaks very clearly to our diverse community, and our children and visitors. How can we expect to co-exist with our Indigenous community when we have put a monument of genocide in the heart of our town? Our Main Street is a representation of this community. How can we hang a pride flag which represents inclusivity, non judgement and reconciliation with people that live in our community that have been disenfranchised, but at the same time we have a statue that remains on the same street that represents anything but reconciliation with the Indigenous community? You are telling me that you pick and choose who you allow reconciliation acceptance for.”
Alexandra Bell, a graduate of Ryerson University – which is currently being called University X in light of calls to rename the university – said it disgusts her that “elected representatives made excuses for Macdonald’s role in genocide as though the date precludes his responsibility for the foundation of pain he established.”
Her comment was made in reference to Coun. Bill Roberts who asked a speaker if they were aware that the Kamloops residential school opened after Macdonald died.*
Council heard an opposing view from George Burger, who founded an organization titled ‘The Honour Sir John Project.’
Burger said the project was formed in response to the decision by Queen’s University to remove the name from its Faculty of Law building.
“The reason I felt compelled to start it was because I looked into the process and the evidence that was used to arrive at that decision and I found it very lacking. Going into it, I was, at the very least, ambivalent of the historic accuracy of the claims regarding Sir John A Macdonald’s views and attitudes toward Indigenous people in Canada. I found that in fact, there were a lot of liberties taken with the history,” he said.
Burger said there is no way to refute or disregard the profound expressions of emotions, especially in light of the Kamloops discovery.
“I think any decent Candian would be profoundly moved and profoundly saddened by that discovery and every tragic experience of every Indigenous child in a residential school. I think those emotions are important and I think that passions are to be respected and the people who have expressed them must be validated. On the other hand, it is also possible to validate emotions and feelings but pay attention to the facts and to history,” he said.
Judith Burfoot, founder of All Welcome Here in Prince Edward County and member of the heritage advisory working group, thanked councillors Kate MacNaughton and Ernie Margetson, who were the only two councillors who voted in favour of the statue’s removal last year. She said they spoke to the “clear need to be an open, welcoming and anti-racist community.”
“It was clearly obvious that many of you had never done any substantive reading, learning or thinking on matters of Indigenous history, colonialism and racism. Despite that painful ignorance, you still felt that you knew best. That is what privilege looks like and acts like,” she said. “You had an opportunity for leadership then. You had a chance to clearly declare that Prince Edward County is a place with zero tolerance for racism. Instead, you said that the most important thing was white men’s comfort. You sent some incredibly clear messages to the roughly 750 Indigenous people who call the County home. You sent a clear message to the other people of colour who reside here and that message also resonated for the 2SLGBTQIA+ residents, to the women, to the young people; to all residents and taxpayers. You want to talk about safety? You made us feel less safe.”
Burfott also referred to the statue’s removal and storage when it was relocated from the Armoury Mall beside the public library, saying there was no consultation for removing it or bringing it back.
“I implore you to show some genuine leadership to acknowledge that you have learned and grown and that you were wrong in 2015 and you were wrong in 2020. It’s important to state that and to acknowledge your mistakes,” she concluded.
Bryan Robelledo, co-owner of Crepe Escape, yielded his three minutes to his friend Kanenhariyo, Hereditary Chief of Tyendinaga, known as Seth LeFort.
Though most of the public comments were held to a three-minute limit, council and close to 200 people watching through the County’s YouTube channel, thanked him for his comments in which he recommended keeping the statue in its current location.
“I encourage you not to take the statue down, but rather to embrace the opportunity to build a wall and document the kind of sadness that man brought to this country and this land,” he said.
He said Macdonald’s purpose was to “remove the Indian problem,” remove all of our cultural knowledge of who we are and our language from us and force us to become Canadian when we are not.
He asked council to embrace the truth and to use the sculpture as an educational opportunity to show the type of reconciliation that is being taken by the County.
“It will reduce the fear and the concerns around public safety. Embracing what happened in the past as opposed to erasing means that we won’t repeat it again. I encourage you to put up a monument with it to describe how you are ashamed for how he acted on your behalf and how he set the stage for the country,” he urged council.
Noted national political strategist and Hillier resident Warren Kinsella told council his daughter is Indigenous and they reside in the home where Sir John A collected his mail when he was a young lawyer in Picton.
He said debates like this have been raging for quite some time and will continue.
“Opponents say correctly, in my view, that such monuments are painful reminders of violence and genocide and they argue that we should not ever celebrate hatred and I agree with that,” he said. “Such monuments rewrite history, hide the truth and celebrate a fictional, sanitized past and ignore the misery that men like this created. We now know that Sir John A Macdonald did create misery and he is not a man who we should be celebrating in this community or in this country. If you disagree, I would ask you to put yourself in the shoes of my daughter.”
He said statues of men like Sir John A Macdonald, as lifeless as they are, still hurt the living.
Coun. Andreas Bolik questioned Kinsella whether council should rename the town of Picton as it is named after Sir Thomas Picton, who was a nasty racist.
Kinsella said there should be critical faculties who work on these kinds of changes and that though he was unaware of that fact, it should be done.
“It is an ongoing effort. It is not nearly enough to say, ‘We can’t do anything about it because there’s too much of it.’ We need as a people, collectively, to deal with this issue because it is an issue that is not only important to Indigenous people like my daughter, it is important to all.”
Coun. John Hirsch thanked those who made passionate comments on both sides of the topic, but said he felt some may not appreciate the municipality’s contractual obligation to protect the ‘Holding Court’ sculpture and ensure it remains in public view.
David Warrick of the Macdonald Group was unable to present his comments due to what seemed to be technical difficulties.
Coun. Ernie Margetson posed the motion to relocate the statue to a safe location in the County while a future location in a public place is found.
Margetson and councillor Kate MacNaughton were the only two members of council who voted to remove and relocate the statue last fall. He noted he believes council arrived to their decision then “in good faith, but things have changed.”
“We have to ask ourselves tonight, ‘Who are we as a community? What do we stand for? What are our values?’
In a recorded 13 – 1 vote, council passed the Margetson-St.Jean motion to remove the statue for further consultation. All councillors but Coun. Brad Nieman voted in favour.
Mayor Ferguson said the comments made were passionate, heartfelt and expressed with sincerity.
“I cannot recall any matter that has come before council that has so polarized our community and stirred such emotional responses,” he said, referring to the hundreds of phone calls and email from members of the community paired with the meeting’s deputations.
“There has been threatening and accusatory language over opposing viewpoints. There have been insults about members of council and staff, I could go on. Emotions are running very high in the community,” he said.
Coun. Bill Roberts said members of council have a “municipal role to play” in the journey of truth and reconciliation.
“I think we need to get used to the word genocide as it concerns Indigenous peoples in this country. When we were having our discussions on Forester’s Island I said that I very much believe that if slavery was the original sin of the United States of America, then the horrid treatment of our Indigenous peoples was Canada’s original sin,” he said.
“We stand at a really critical crossroads of genuine reconciliation of Indigenous peoples in this country. I hope we have more to say and more discussion but finally, I think that what lies ahead is as testing a moral, cultural, political and economic moment as Canada has ever faced. I hope in the spirit of collegiality and taking in all of the County residents’ sentiments, that we do it correctly, inclusively, honestly and together.”
*Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story flasely indicated Councillor Roberts asked the question regarding Macdonald’s death after the opening of the Kamloops Residential School to more than one speaker. The Gazette regrets the error.