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Sir John ‘Holding Court’ statue fate may come down to legal opinion

By Sue Capon
The decision to keep, remove or relocate the Sir John A Macdonald ‘Holding Court’ statue on Main Street Picton may come down to legal opinion when council holds its special meeting Nov. 17.

The Prince Edward Heritage Advisory Committee was tasked with making a recommendation to council on the ranked vote decision in October by the ‘Holding Court’ Statue Working Group, that it be removed. The rankings were most-to-least preference of remove, modify, relocate, replace or keep.

PEHAC decided Nov. 4 on a motion member John Hirsch says “gives council flexibility” to make its final decision. PEHAC’s decision recommends council “acknowledge” the working group’s decision, and seeks further consideration and engagement on the topics of permanent removal, or a more appropriate location, on either public or private property.

PEHAC’s motion recommends obtaining legal opinion before any temporary or permanent removal of the statue. A legal opinion from the municipality’s counsel is hoped to be delivered in time for council’s special meeting. Should removal prove unworkable due to legalities with the public art donation agreement contract signed in 2015 between the Macdonald Project, artist and municipality, PEHAC recommends supporting the Working Group’s second highest ranked recommendation, which was to modify the statue in its existing location.

PEHAC also supports the working group’s recommendation to develop a public art policy for future installations of art and to support efforts to showcase more Indigenous art and culture, particularly from the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, based on the neighbouring Tyendinaga community.

PEHAC members learned a Memorandum of Understanding with the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte was already under way and is scheduled for discussion at council’s Nov. 10 meeting.

PEHAC member Peter Lockyer, noted in a comment to the committee that ultimately, any decision should not squander an opportunity to be thoughtful, imaginative and guide council and the community to encourage more conversation.

“Will we unite the community or bitterly divide it? Will we follow the wise counsel of the Truth and Reconciliation Report and avoid shaming and blaming while promoting truth, understanding, compassion, and respectful dialogue that nurtures a new vision of our community and the country? Will we listen closely to the voices of First Nations and respect their views? Will we have learned from history – or are we just repeating it?

“There is such an opportunity to pioneer a new relationship with our Mohawk neighbours and other visible minorities who are our fellow citizens. I am worried we are going to set back these extraordinary possibilities.

In her submission to PEHAC, member Liz Driver also focused on the need for qualitative analysis she felt was missing from the Working Group’s decision – including synthesis of public opinion, a record of Chief R. Don Maracle’s presentation, engagement with Kingston’s “positive and constructive approach” to its connection to Sir John and a deeper look at a submission from the County’s museum noting the statue does not fit the site’s mission.

She expressed a “real risk of members of the public resorting to harassment and vandalism to assert their views, as has already happened.”

PEHAC member Don Payne agreed the Working Group failed to complete an organized assessment of public opinion.

“I think that council would have been better served by a more open process that encouraged the involvement of a much broader range of people. I understand that the Kingston process took a year and a half with the benefit of a facilitation by a professional consulting firm. We took about three months with no external help to guide the process.”

David Warrick, spokesperson for Friends of Macdonald in the County and Quinte region, stated he was heartened PEHAC acknowledged the Working Group consultations had flaws.

“The Working Group’s recommendation to place the statue in storage in no way reflects the views of the broader community,” said Warrick, adding their report also did not include several online surveys and recent Leger and Angus Reid polls showing a more than two-to-one preference for keeping statues of prominent Canadians.

“The mayor and council have a decision to make and they should represent all views in PEC, and not just those of volunteers who clearly have biases, some of them quite extreme.”

The bronze portrait now outside of the Picton Library depicts a 19-year-old Macdonald winning his first court case in Picton. It was commissioned by The Macdonald Group and created by Canadian artist Ruth Abernethy to mark the 200th anniversary of Macdonald’s birth, and unveiled in 2015.

It was vandalized twice this summer and continues to embroil the community in heated debate. Tension over statues of Canada’s first prime minister continue across the country as citizens argue his building of the nation, and his mistreatment of Indigenous peoples.

In Picton, the catalyst for conversation was the removal of the statue from its original location next door at the armouries, while under renovation, to the library. The library hosted a full-house presentation by Dr. Niigaan Sinclair on Macdonald’s abuse of Indigenous peoples in Canada. His father, Justice Murray Sinclair, was the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

Citizens woke to the knowledge of Indigenous history demanded action and council formed the ‘Holding Court’ Statue Working Group to conduct public consultation and make a recommendation to be forwarded to PEHAC, for consideration and to forward to council for its decision.

The special council meeting is set for Nov. 17.

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  1. Michelle says:

    Ironic that a legal decision could decide a statue that is purely based on a legal issue in Picton in the 1800’s.

  2. Mark says:

    Good for Mr.Lockyer. Some wise words.

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