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Sir John A Macdonald to be stored, then re-located

Photograph taken early Tuesday morning of Sir John sculpture being removed from the library is being shared on social media channels. Photographer currently unknown. 

By Sue Capon
The sculpture of Sir John A Macdonald ‘Holding Court’ was removed from Main Street Picton early Tuesday morning and placed in storage while municipal staff birth a plan over the next nine months for his re-appearance elsewhere.

“We will likely never get consensus,” the County’s CAO told council at the end of the four-and-a-half hour meeting Monday night. Removal, she said, 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, far beyond a contextual sign.

However, she noted that after hearing nearly 40 people speak at Monday’s special council meeting, there should be a lot of people in the community willing to help.

Council decided in November 2020 the ‘Holding Court’ sculpture would remain in front of Picton’s public library 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 Bay of Quinte Mohawks, for wording to augment and contextualize the sculpture.

The bronze portrait depicts a 19-year-old Macdonald winning his first court case in Picton. Canada’s first prime minister was once a resident of Prince Edward County. It was commissioned by The Macdonald Group and created by Canadian artist Ruth Abernethy to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth, and unveiled in 2015.

In the past seven months, the art policy is well under way, though behind due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Wording to accompany the sculpture has proven difficult.

CAO Wallace told council the wording has been difficult to draft to do it justice and no one is satisfied that it, so far, answers the community’s concerns. Including more information on a website, she noted, has been considered as a way to share the larger story.

Council’s set the meeting to discuss public safety and contract obligations for the sculpture, after the Tk’emlúpsem te Secwépemc First Nation in British Columbia announced last week it had discovered the remains of 215 children in unmarked graves at a former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

The sculpture was in storage once before between its relocation from the Armoury Mall next door, to the library. Its return in 2020 was a catalyst for conversation about Macdonald’s past, within the broader context of colonialism. The sculpture was vandalized in multiple instances last year and again last week when a crowd estimated at 200 people held a vigil for the 215 children at Kamloops.

Councillor Phil St.-Jean told council the demonstration highlighted concerns about the safety of the public, and the sculpture which was the victim of criminal acts 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’s 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; and I’m also upset with certain members attacking a piece of artwork. This is causing much strife in our community… I have difficulty with any group, individual or organization that commits crimes to further their cause. I find that extremely upsetting… I would like to see further investigations, and charges, if founded.”

Councillor Ernie Margetson floated the motion to relocate Sir John to a safe location in the County while a future location is found in a public place that people choose to visit.

Margetson and councillor Kate MacNaughton were the only two members of council last fall favouring removal of the sculpture. Margetson noted he believes council’s decision then was completed in good faith, but since, “things have changed.

“We have to ask ourselves tonight, who are we as a community, what do we stand for, what are our values?” He sought council’s support for relocation. All but councillor Brad Nieman voted in favour.

Councillor John Hirsch noted thanks for the many impassioned comments from the audience, on both sides, but felt some may not appreciate the municipality’s contractural obligation to protect the sculpture and ensure it remains in pubic view. A presentation from David Warrick, of the Macdonald Group, was not completed, it appeared, due to problems with Internet.

“We are not giving in. We are not getting rid of it,” said Hirsch.

“I can’t recall any matter that has come before council that has so polarized our community and stirred such emotional responses,” said Mayor Steve Ferguson referencing hundreds of telephone calls and emails to himself and councillors, and the evening’s deputations.

“There has been threatening and accusatory language over opposing viewpoints; there have been insults about members of council and staff and I could go on. Emotions are running very high in the community. The comments heard this evening were passionate, they were heart-felt and I believe they were expressed with sincerity.”

“I think we need to get used to the word genocide as it concerns Indigenous peoples in this country,” said councillor Bill Roberts, a long-time and ongoing supporter of the Indigenous community; and the councillor who fought foremost for the County to help support the Bay of Quinte Mohawks to reclaim Forester’s Island.

“When we were having discussions on Forester’s Island I said that I very much believed 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.

“We have a municipal role to play in the journey of truth and reconciliation and I really want to believe… that every councillor appreciates that we stand at a really critical crossroads of genuine reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in this country. I hope we have more to say, and more discussion. 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.”

St.-Jean added “we owe it to our Indigenous neighbours to tell the story and I believe we can do that, if we do this properly.”

Though most of the public gave three-minute presentations begging to removing the statue, they, through the chat area beside the YouTube video, as about 200 people watched, also thanked Seth LeFort, “Kanenhariyo” speaking under the ‘Zoom’ name of Bryan Rebolledo  of Tyendinaga, for his presentation in which he recommended keeping Sir John where he stands.

“I encourage you not to take the statue down,” he said. “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 embodied genocide,” he said, noting he was a residential school survivor.

He stated 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 to force us to become Canadian when we weren’t.

He asked council to embrace the truth, use the sculpture as an education opportunity and show the type of reconciliation that is being taken by the County to rectify the wrongs of the past.

“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’re ashamed for how he acted on your behalf and how he set the stage for the country.”

Warren Kinsella said his daughter is Indigenous and they live in Hillier in the home where Sir John collected his mail. He told council there should be no more statues or schools in Macdonald’s name and to build monuments to people who were not racist.

“Statues of men like Sir John A. Macdonald, as lifeless as they are, still hurt the living.”

When questioned by councillor Andreas Bolik, if council should rename the town of Picton as it is named after a man who kept slaves, Kinsella noted he was unaware of the fact, but answered yes.



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  1. ADJ says:

    Ask how much the Catholic church was paid by government to run these schools, how much was actually spent om the feeding, and clothing? The church has a long history of lining their pockets on the backs of the un-educated and racially discriminated. Without going into details the Jews of WW2 being a good example. In our County the Catholic church worked with the Children Aid to farm out native and white kids of broken homes.Waupoos Is. was a farm work camp operated by the Oblate Fathers to keep kids until they were either old enough or were turned over to foster homes. There are stories out there…take the time to ask some of the older locals. Questionable whether this was a good practice as it scarred the kids for life. The farm was an actual working farm with cows to milk, hay to draw etc.
    So my question is therefore Why is it the Catholic Church seems to be exempt from any blame? not being included only tells part of the story.

  2. Perspectives says:

    A great deal has been written here criticizing the leaders of the late 19th and early 20th century for their approach to dealing with the education and feeding of indigenous people living in the near to far north. Would any of the naysayers like to venture how they would have handled the issue of people living in remote areas inaccessible to most forms of transportation in the day? It is easy to formulate an opinion with 2021 vision when judging 19th century actions: a little more difficult when you transport yourself to the time in question.

  3. olmnonthemtn says:

    Duncan Campbell Scott -Mandatory residential school attendance

    “In 1920, under Scott’s direction, and with the concurrence of leaders of the religious groups most involved in native education, the Indian Act was amended to made it mandatory for all native children between the ages of seven and fifteen to attend school. Attendance at a residential school was made compulsory, although a reading of Bill 14 says that no particular kind of school was stipulated. Scott was in favour of residential schooling for aboriginal children, as he believed removing them from the influences of home and reserve would hasten the cultural and economic transformation of the whole aboriginal population. In cases where a residential school was the only kind available, residential enrollment did become mandatory, and aboriginal children were compelled to leave their homes, their families and their culture, with or without their parents’ consent.”

  4. Henri Garand says:

    I agree that the Macdonald statue had to be removed—not for “good” but for political reasons. Though I originally supported keeping the statue and contextualizing it with new signage, the story indicates the major obstacle:

    “CAO Wallace told council the wording has been difficult to draft to do it justice and no one is satisfied that it, so far, answers the community’s concerns. Including more information on a website, she noted, has been considered as a way to share the larger story.”

    Consider as well one speaker’s views at council’s special meeting, again as reported by in this story:

    “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. . . . I encourage you to put up a monument with it to describe how you’re ashamed for how he acted on your behalf and how he set the stage for the country.”

    Undoubtedly, such signage would reflect indigenous history. But is it a balanced perspective? Did Macdonald spend all his time persecuting First Nations? The historical record suggests he also tended to other business like uniting English and French Canada and building a railroad so British Columbia would join in Confederation.

    Of course, the Picton statue commemorates none of Macdonald’s later activities. As I’ve said before, it is equivalent to an historical footnote on his early life.

    If the only satisfactory signage is one with mostly Indigenous emphasis, it hardly tells the full story. And how is Reconciliation served by turning such statuary into an object of shame? How many County residents and visitors would want to see it in the midst of town?

  5. Sue3 says:

    Mandatory attendance at the schools was actually put in place in 1894 (not 1884), three years after Macdonald’s death.

    In 1876 – the year the Indian Act was introduced – the liberals were in power and Alexander MacKenzie was Prime Minister (not Macdonald).

    If you read through the actual records/transcripts, there were issues trying to get food to the Indians in the west. Transportation of goods was not a simple task in the 1800s. Hence, the efforts to have the Indians support themselves rather than rely on government supplies.

    And, as has been mentioned before, Macdonald’s successful campaign to vaccinate all of the Natives against smallpox. Definitely not the work of someone trying to destroy a nation.

  6. angela says:

    Bravo Councillor Nieman for having the courage to stand up for Sir John. We need more like you.

  7. Dennis Fox says:

    John A. served as Canada’s Prime Minister on two occasions – 1867 – 1871 and from 1878 -1891. In 1867 the British North America Act placed all responsibility for aboriginal people into the hands of the Canadian government. In 1883 John A. MacDonald authorized the creation of 45 residential schools, as recommended by the Davin Report. In 1884, the Indian Act of 1876 was amended by MacDonald to establish residential schools as being mandatory for all aboriginal children. During his time as PM, MacDonald apologized to Parliament for not starving the Indians faster – it is too expensive to feed them. Not that the government fed them well – in western Canada they were being starved to death!

    The idea that SJAM had nothing to do with residential schools is only being promoted by those who are in denial. Rather than making people find ways to convince the deniers – it is time for them to turn a few pages in our history books – the true story is all there.

    Bottom line – the statue on Picton’s Main St. had to go – and for good reasons.

  8. Mark says:

    Kudos to Councilor Brad Nieman. His vote took courage. Uninformed reactions and speed to satisfy the vocal discontent serves no one or the Country well. This Councilor serves us well as always.

  9. Susan says:

    Sir John A ensured the Indingenous community received the small pox vaccine. Far cry from genocide.

  10. olmnonthemtn says:

    Justice Murray Sinclair Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission favours including “shameful information” in respect to Sir John A be placed on a plaque with prominent information. He responded to a proposal to rename schools named after Sir John A Macdonald by expressing his concern that:
    “Tearing down tributes to historical figures would be “counterproductive” to reconciliation efforts between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. It is not about taking off names off buildings, it is about whether we can find a way to put Indigenous names on buildings. The problem I have with the overall approach to tearing down statues and buildings is that is counterproductive to … reconciliation because it almost smacks of revenge or smacks of acts of anger, but in reality, what we are trying to do, is we are trying to create more balance in the relationship.”

  11. olmnonthemtn says:

    In contrast to those who wish to paint him as a cruel bigot Richard Gywn writes:

    The experts have been dead wrong. Consider that Macdonald was the first national democratic leader in the world to try to extend the vote to women, introducing such legislation in the Commons in 1885. He got nowhere, but he described the future exactly, warning MPs it was “certain” that the female would “completely establish her equality as a human being and as a member of society with man.” That’s a description of the gender equality we’ve at last achieved, more or less.

    The truth is, though, that for his time, Macdonald was unusually liberal-minded. Among his lifelong friends were Indians and Métis. He wasn’t in the least afraid to tell the truth about relations between native people and whites, as in: “We must remember they are the original owners of the soil of which they have been dispossessed by the covetousness or ambition of our ancestors.”

    Most remarkably, he got MPs to agree to the most imaginative reform of his time: any Indian could gain the vote while retaining all his privileges, such as freedom from taxes. Unhappily, Laurier cancelled this reform, with the measure not restored until John Diefenbaker did so in 1960, which was far too late to make any difference.

    His actual policy for getting food to the Indians — one his critics always avoid citing — was: “We cannot as Christians, and as men with hearts in our bosoms, allow the vagabond Indian to die before us . . . We must prevent them from starving, in consequence of the extinction of the buffalo and their not yet (having) betaken themselves to raising crops.” Circumstances made that task extremely difficult. Amid a depression, few Canadians were prepared to be generous. The opposition Liberals seized the opportunity and repeatedly charged that by feeding native people, Macdonald was turning them into permanent dependents of government. It’s still true that he didn’t do the job well. But no other Canadian government until the 1930s gave anyone money, food or anything else to its people just because they had no job or nowhere to live or no pension. In those days, charity was the exclusive responsibility of the churches.

    Toronto Star columnist Richard Gwyn is the author of the bestselling two-volume biography of Sir John A. Macdonald, John A: The Man Who Made Us and Nation Maker.

  12. Dennis Fox says:

    I believe that some have misunderstood the actions concerning SJAM. Our history has not been changed nor has it been cancelled, as some suggest. Instead we are clarifying the truth about some of our history – it hasn’t changed who SJAM was – he is still our 1st PM, and one of the founders of confederation – so nothing has changed in that respect.

    What has changed is we are now removing the false image of this man – he wasn’t as wonderful as he has been historically painted. He had some major faults that we are now realizing(as a nation) we have to deal with. His bigotry and cruelty towards aboriginal people is something that we can not accept nor try to sweep under the rug with clichés such as – “he didn’t know, he was a man of his era,” etc. He did know and he was our PM – who like any other has to face what he and his government did. Being a PM of a democratic country comes with a lot of responsibility – including taking the heat for some very bad legislation.

    Calling this time ” a woke” moment is frivolous trendy talk that doesn’t come close to explaining the racism taking place in this country now! From the Wet’suwet’en blockade in BC to protect their land from oil and mining – to the one at Tyendinaga in support – no one cared that their treaty was being broken in order to fill the pockets of the rich. From Oka, to the shooting of Dudley George – all carried out under the watchful eye of our governments and police – the same people who colonized them and placed their children into residential schools! Now some moan and groan about how their history has been taken from them – really? And some go on about how the protesters who vandalized a statue deserve jail time. If they do, then many others do as well!

    It is time for Canada to face the growing problems of racism and complacency – the Muslim family murdered in London Ontario only wish that they were alive now to take part in this discussion. Don’t say that their problem is a different one – it isn’t! They were killed by the same racist, bigoted attitude as what killed the 215 kids in Kamloops!

    What is different is that as a country we are dealing with the problems without a lot of street violence, as we see south of our border. As slow as it may seem, the problems are not being ignored – as with the recent example with John A. He will survive and so will we – but we need to do more than just survive. Living in honesty and recording our history as it really was must be the bedrock of our society – if it is not then we become a lost nation with a history based on fiction. With the relocation of many John A’s. across Canada. we are proving we can to this peacefully – with nothing being lost.

  13. Chris Harvey says:

    A good decision to remove a worthless icon, no one asked for it the 1st place, yes indigenous oppressions is the dominant narrative because its alive and strong in a certain generation and they dont even know it, if only those kids had some ‘woke warriors’ 50 years ago.

  14. Argyle says:

    The Woke seems to have the Mayor and Shire Hall saying “ uncle “.

  15. Dee says:

    We can never learn from history if we erase it. Education is the saving grace for our future. Burying our history is not the route to take. Exposing our history, learning from it is. I respect the opinion of both sides of this arguement, however, the trash talk and rhetoric is non productive . The meeting was to address the safety of our citizens in regards to the Sir John A issue. No one addressed how members of our advisory committee experienced threats and vandalism to their properties by protesters. I applaud council addressing the treatment and safety of their members and their families, and staff, but what about the volunteer citizens who work on committees of council. Do they not deserve the same protection under our policies.

  16. angela says:

    There are already plans afoot for a petition to change the name of Picton. Prayer is no longer allowed in our schools, we cannot say Merry Christmas, and the words to O Canada have been tweaked. Canada Day here is being cancelled which is tantamount to saying we are ashamed of our flag and our country. Perhaps we would prefer to be Americans? They fought brother against brother in a Civil War that killed thousands many dying in prison camps with horrifying conditions, yet they fly their flag with pride. Where does it stop? When do we say enough? When do we stop allowing a small vocal group, most of its members relative newcomers to the county, to call the shots? The attempt to organize a petition to change the name of our town should be the last straw. The county had better carry the bust of Sir Thomas Picton to a secret place by dark of night or it is sure to be vandalized.

  17. Gary says:

    Canada’s name comes from the indigenous folks so it will require changing. Picton is named after Sir Thomas Picton a mean spirited slave owner so it needs to change pronto. Lot’s will be forthcoming.

  18. Greg Clark says:

    PEI is the beginning of Canada. They are erasing their own history to become politically correct.

  19. Dan says:

    I am still more worried about the people who come here for the weekend.

  20. angela says:

    Sad but true that Canada Day celebrations have been cancelled by the county’s volunteer committee for this function. The statue has been removed and now we are pretending that Confederation did not happen? Amazing what enough red paint, picket signs, and bullying tactics can do. It has now been declared by a committee that public celebration of Confederation is insensitive and in poor taste. The rewriting of history just keeps getting more and more interesting.

  21. Ian says:

    If you want a better understanding of the crazy things that

    are now happening to our once great country, then google

    Wikipedia Cultural Revolution.

    It explains our woke warriors.

    Let us hope that we also do not degenerate into cannibalism

    While Trudeau’s “Post Nation State ” is being created.

  22. Dee Jay says:

    The very name Canada conjures up an image of this country’s colonial era mis-deeds. I say the country’s name needs to change post-haste !

  23. Michelle says:

    If you scream loud enough and long enough and throw in some paint you get your way. Some do not even educate themselves on an accurate account of history. Sad day. And I as well am not convinced Councils action was procedurally legal.

  24. CountyProud says:

    CHUCK perhaps that vote happened during the closed session Special Council meeting last Friday

  25. angela says:

    And indeed if the Canada Day committee has decided not to hold celebrations to celebrate our country this year it is time we ask who these people are and by what right are they speaking for all of us. To ask us to demonstrate shame for our country by cancelling Canada Day is an affront to all of the men who fought and died for this country in two World Wars. The tail is wagging the dog. A relatively small number of very vocal individuals is calling the shots. No apology will ever be enough for them and no sincere effort to make amends will suffice. Any move to cancel Canada Day celebrations should be greeted with the contempt it deserves.

  26. Henri Garand says:

    I remain amazed that a little piece of sidewalk art, which used to be a tourist diversion, has become so politicized that public safety requires its removal. But I suppose that is preferable to the proposal for an accompanying wall of infamy detailing Macdonald’s offences. How many residents or visitors would give it more than a glance in years ahead?

    The uproar over Macdonald implicitly raises the question of what is history. On the one hand, it is a record of the past: internal conflicts and wars, legislation and political change, settlement and economic development. On the other, it is the lived experience of our ancestors. For Indigenous people I accept that the story is of a long oppression.

    But what was and is the lived experience of other Canadians? Of course, one can fixate on the suffering of every immigrant group. Quebecois felt abandoned by France and discriminated against in their own country. Highland Scots were displaced to marginal farms in Nova Scotia. The Irish exchanged famine for hard labor on the Rideau Canal. Similar stories might be told about Chinese, East Indian, Ukrainian, Polish, Italian, Dutch, Jamaican, and recently Middle Eastern immigrants, etc. who have come to Canada chiefly after 1900. But Canada has also been a place where they and many of their descendants have thrived.

    Is Indigenous oppression the dominant historical narrative and should it be central to everyone’s sense of Canada?

  27. Chuck says:

    I am not certain that democracy was well served. Procedural rules state that a decided matter cannot be revisited by Council for 4 meetings and only with a two thirds supporting vote. Otherwise it cannot be revisited for 1 year. There was no vote taken to revisit this matter that was ruled on last November. Unless I am missing something the action taken last night was out of order.

  28. Dennis Fox says:

    The vast majority taking part in last night’s online meeting wanted the statue removed! 13 out of 14 Councillors made the right decision to remove the statue – democracy was served. As far as the Canada Day Celebrations go, I recently read a letter from the Canada Day Committee stating they would not be organizing it this year due to the killing of the 215 kids – maybe this latest decision by Council might change their minds???

  29. JCM says:

    When the decision to keep the statue of Sir JAM was made, it was known at that time that hundreds of residential children were missing and presumed dead. The discovery of the grave in Kamloops is not a new argument and cause to rethink the decision.
    With sad discovery of the grave in Kamloops, which touches everyone, emotions are running high and people are looking for blame. With emotions comes anger and violent acts like vandalizing statues, which is unlawful.
    Bad decisions can be made from our emotions and anger. I agree with our CAO that putting Sir JAM in storage to prevent more vandalism and letting cooler heads prevail is a good idea.
    I think the earlier decision to keep the statue of Sir JAM and to have some kind of plaque or sign telling people of his role in the residential schools is still our best option.

  30. angela says:

    A sad day, indeed. Perhaps the saddest part of all is that we let it happen. Would council have made the same decision if 200 of us had quietly stood in front of the statue with placards reading “Keep the Statue, keep our culture”? They won through vandalism, hateful remarks on fb and a determination to shout the loudest and council caved in. Where will the new “more suitable” location be for the statue? It will remain in permanent storage as council straddles the fence. They have appeased the protestors and hope to salvage a little of their dignity by storing the statue with a vague promise of a new location where the public can visit by choice. They argued for months before they decided on the last location. This will not end with Sir John’s removal. Emboldened by their success probably will be an attempt to change the name of the town or cancel Canada Day. Same protestors, different cause. Our indifference allows these things to happen.

  31. Bruce Nicholson says:

    Cancel culture scores another win.
    A very sad day for Picton !

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