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Macdonald statue should reconcile art and history

Opinion to the Editor
by Henri Garand
The controversy over Holding Court, Picton’s statue of John A. Macdonald, must be examined in historical, aesthetic, and economic as well as political contexts:
1. The statue is linked to a specific time in Picton’s history and Macdonald’s life unrelated to his later political career.
2. The statue is unique sidewalk sculpture that arouses interest and encourages public interaction. It was intended to please, not anger or divide viewers.
3. The location outside the library and near the Regent Theatre maximizes its visibility and value in the tourist economy. If relocated, it would still have to be protected from potential vandalism.
4. Though Macdonald’s later political actions are extrinsic to the focus and meaning of the statue, an accompanying explanatory plaque and/or display inside the library could address matters of Truth and Reconciliation.
5. The statue does not have to be removed or relocated; if necessary, it can be repurposed on site. Text for a new plaque is proposed.
The Macdonald Statue Controversy: Reconciling Art and History
Introduction

The controversy over Picton’s statue of John A. Macdonald involves a multi-faceted debate over public art and Canada’s historical record. It’s a shame that a sculptural gift to the County has entangled council and residents in dispute and divisiveness. But perhaps there is a way for art to triumph over politics. Before considering possible solutions, however, I think we have to understand the Macdonald statue in three contexts: local history, public art, and historical revisionism.

Local History
The Holding Court statue was originally proposed as depicting a specific incident on October 8, 1834, when the 19-year-old Macdonald successfully defended himself in Picton’s courthouse. According to the Macdonald Project website, the trial “marks the moment when John A. came of age and started his career in law.” Recently, the reality of this event has been questioned. But even if the inspiration for Holding Court is unfounded, the image of Macdonald standing beside a prisoner’s dock is an appropriate depiction for his local legal career. It’s indisputable that between 1833 and 1837 Macdonald studied and practiced law, as well as married, in Picton before relocating to begin his political career in Kingston. This early association confers a special significance on the town of Picton. No other small Canadian town can claim a similar connection with Macdonald.

Public Art
Sculptor Ruth Abernethy’s statue of Macdonald is a fine piece of public art. As sidewalk art it engages viewers at eye level and encourages interaction. Tourists sometimes pose for photographs next to the statue or in the prisoner’s dock. At the very least it arouses curiosity and invites inquiry into the meaning of the scene depicted. The representational image is not of a dignified senior politician but of a seemingly ordinary fellow, though in old-fashioned dress.
Undoubtedly, the statue would not exist without Macdonald’s becoming Prime Minister and it was commissioned to mark his 200th birthday, but neither would it exist without his early life in Picton. The statue is not a conventional tribute to a Great Man; it is a vivid pictorial rendering of a scene in court, regardless of whether the scene is specific or generic. One cannot see this unique piece of sidewalk art without wondering what it depicts. The presence of the prisoner’s dock makes all the difference.
Macdonald is depicted not on a pedestal high above the heads of viewers. He is not astride a horse and carrying a sword. Nor does he stand strong despite age and the winds of change. The iconography is not heroic. The image, like a snapshot of the past, encourages us to see Macdonald not as symbol but as his young self. At its most obvious, the statue functions exclusively in terms of Picton’s pioneer history, the equivalent of an American sign reading “Washington slept here”. Of course, a viewer can recoil in dismay upon recognizing the personage as Macdonald, but that is a reaction outside the literal representation of an earlier time.

Revisionism
Despite its limited sphere of artistic and historical reality, the Macdonald statue has been caught up in social change and revisionist assessment. The dispute polarizes those who defend Macdonald as a man of his time and those who denounce his acts as reprehensible whether or not he knew it. The historical background of the statue cannot therefore be isolated from current Canadian values.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report has shone a spotlight on many truths about Macdonald’s political career. Bud does it reflect the only truth about his life? If he is responsible for the discrimination and violence suffered by indigenous people, Chinese immigrants, and other minorities, then he must also be seen as responsible for helping to found the nation of Canada and building a railroad that preserved it from American expansionism. Current Canadian citizens still benefit from those achievements, though we are also the heirs of Macdonald’s misdeeds and must continue to address their remediation.
Given its early historical focus, should the Macdonald statue bear the weight of all his political baggage? Since it does not honor Macdonald’s whole career, should it be condemned because of the stain of retrospective guilt?

Removal or Relocation
The present location of the statue outside the Picton library has made it an object for protest and vandalism. But the potential for further vandalism should not figure in council’s deciding where to locate the statue. Vandalism can take place anywhere, and mitigation can only reduce its incidence and severity. Outside the library the simple, least intrusive protection is video surveillance to discourage vandals and to help apprehend them.
More importantly, concerns over vandalism should not override the decision making. Vandals do not express a community consensus and must not be given a de facto veto on display of the statue. The broad public consultation process must be respected, and any decision must be based upon sound reasoning, not fears of backlash by some members of the community.
Moving the statue off Main Street to a site with less pedestrian traffic, such as the grounds of Shire Hall or the courthouse, is at odds with the design of a sidewalk sculpture and would not maintain the artistic experience. Though the courthouse may provide a close association with Macdonald’s legal practice, both it and Shire Hall would reduce the number of viewers and diminish the role of the statue in the tourist economy. (For what it’s worth, the statue appears on a Tripadvisor list of county attractions.) Relocation, like complete removal, is just a convenient means of disposing of a political problem.
Moreover, how does removing the Macdonald statue facilitate understanding of the past? All art reflects the age and culture in which it was produced and is often contaminated, to some extent, by past social practices and values. To preserve it we have to think beyond the present. The meaning of public bronze and stone statuary changes, and the importance can even disappear with time. But as long as the statues remain intact they recall the heritage and history of those who inherited them. Their removal does not leave behind a lasting lesson; it leaves merely a void to be filled by misinformation and ignorance.
If the Macdonald statue is to be preserved and rehabilitated, then it is already ideally located near the library, which houses so many County memories and accommodates other tarnished reputations. A permanent display inside the library could recount Macdonald’s life after he left Picton, and explain his contentious legacy.

Accompanying Plaque
The content, placement, and size of an accompanying plaque are more problematic. A plaque should not overwhelm the statue with historical detail and interpretation which turn this charming and curious piece of public art into a dark history lesson, an object of shame instead of pride. An interpretive plaque that dwells chiefly on Macdonald’s later career is likely to spoil any viewer’s initial aesthetic pleasure, rather like castor oil after a taste of sugar.
The text on the plaque must also balance the perspectives of both those who admire Macdonald and those who revile him. It’s an extraordinarily difficult task to find the right phrasing and emphasis because the aim cannot be to transform Macdonald from Canadian hero into villain. That simply shows disrespect for one group in order to please another. The text should help to resolve differences as well as amend history. It’s a matter, as in all art, of proportion.

With great hesitancy, I suggest a factually-based inscription along these lines:
Holding Court depicts the young John A. Macdonald (1815-91) in Picton, where he studied and practiced law between 1833 and 1837. Sculptor Ruth Abernethy shows him standing beside a prisoner’s dock in Picton’s courthouse. Thirty years after leaving Picton to pursue a political career, Macdonald became Canada’s first prime minister, and many years later he was responsible for government policies harmful to Indigenous people and immigrant minorities. Commissioned, funded, and erected by the local Macdonald Project, the statue marks an early time in Picton’s pioneer heritage.

Conclusion
The controversy over the Macdonald statue requires a careful decision by council and its mature acceptance by county residents and all interested parties. Then at least three principles in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report will be partially met:
1. Public truth sharing, apology, and commemoration that acknowledge and redress past harms.
2. Responsibility for establishing and maintaining mutually respectful relationships.
3. Sustained public education and dialogue.
When serving these new purposes, surely the Macdonald statue should remain where it enhances both residents’ and visitors’ experience of Picton. Then it will show how art can aid in reconciling everyone with history.

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  1. Chuck says:

    I have seen nothing to support the claim that white people are attempting to whitewash history. In fact most are comfortable with outlining the full story of successes and errors including religious denominations involvement.

  2. ADJ says:

    I’m being careful not to name the religious orders that ran these schools…more attention should be brought to them as to truly expose the truth. Many questions left unanswered. Perhaps not all the governments fault?

  3. Dennis Fox says:

    Sure signs of “White Privilege” is when white people try to whitewash not only the history about John A. and the long term impact that his policies had, but also when they try to whitewash the words that so accurately describes his actions towards aboriginal people. Extermination or genocide are exactly the right words to use to describe J.A’s actions towards our native people. For the faint of heart, they need to know that some of Canada’s history isn’t what they now want to change it to.

  4. Bruce Nicholson says:

    Thank you Henri.Statues are not being removed across the country. Kingston has no plans to remove Sir John A. from its City park. The majority of County residents have no problem with the statue and its location. Those opposed use terminology such as “extermination” to describe Sir John A.’s treatment of aboriginals. They should choose their words more carefully and more accurately !

  5. angela says:

    Wasn’t it Shakespeare who said “The evil that men do lives on, the good is oft interred with their bones?” Sir John had his faults, made his mistakes, and committed acts that today we see as very wrong but that was not the sum total of the man. Removing or relocating the statue will not correct the misdeeds now being trumpeted by his detractors. It will not bring about “reconciliation”. It will simply sow bitterness among those who see no wrong in having a statue of Canada’s first prime minister on Picton’s Main Street. Names torn from buildings and statues hidden or destroyed will not change history. We can only go forward from the here and now. The statue was never “offensive” until a small group of relative newcomers to our community decided to declare it so.

  6. Mark says:

    So out of sight out of mind! As long as not on Main St all is fine. He deserves the spot where he now stands. We can await the debate on Sir Thomas Picton! Where do we hide the slave owner?

  7. Dennis Fox says:

    Some claim the statue to be art, others claim it to be only a statue – the point that I am making is that it is a matter of opinion as to what quality of art it is.

    What one cannot argue with is the reaction this statue has received – much of it controversial and negative. The quality of the statue was never the question and nor should it be. The only question that our Council and the various committees are looking at only is its location.

    I find this art discussion to be contrived and an attempt to distract from the real issue. The real issue being that John A implemented policies against our aboriginal people that attempted to exterminate them and that having this statue on our Main St. in front of our library is offensive to many people- both aboriginal and white. In my opinion, it should be moved to an out of the way location, where it could still be viewed by all who claim it to be a wonderful piece of art. This is a win – win solution for everyone.

    We have recently witnessed Queens University come to the intelligent decision to remove Macdonald’s name from their law school. We have also view new TV ads reminding Canadians that the United Nations issued a statement outlining how Canada has ignored giving our aboriginal people basic human rights. This is the real issue facing PEC. If some of you want to use some abstract reasoning claiming the statue has artistic value – then that is your right, but I respectfully disagree. However, please don’t pretend that its artistic merits are more important than giving people basic human rights and respect, because it is not – and that is what this statue discussion is really about – isn’t it? The right decision is to move it.

  8. Patti says:

    Thank you, Henri Garand, for a clearly written letter.

  9. kb says:

    Why are we still having this conversation? He committed injustice and atrocities, to this day which are still happening. I am ashamed this of cow towing to those who feel the need to keep this representation of colonialism.

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