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Sir John sculpture to be returned; will not be part of ‘A Path Forward’ exhibit

By Sue Capon
The Sir John A Macdonald ‘Holding Court’ sculpture will be returned to its donors and not be included in “A Path Forward” museum exhibit to be curated to explore the community’s reckoning with the national tragedy of the residential school system and feature other elements related to the goal of honouring truth and reconciliation.

Council, at a special Committee of the Whole meeting Wednesday night, directed municipal staff to initiate a formal return of the sculpture which will conclude the initial agreement, outline the process, timing and details.

An agreement for “A Path Forward” exhibit to be created and curated at Macaulay Church Museum that will offers entry by donation, instead of the usual museum fee, was also approved.

Council heard from the donors, represented by David Warrick, chair of the Macdonald Project, as well as Picton Macaulay Church Museum exhibit partners from the Tsi Tyónnheht Onkwawén:na, Language and Cultural Centre (TTO) and the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund (DWF).

Marilyn and David Warrick pose with Sir John and artist Ruth Abernathy at a gala in Toronto.

Warrick recommended the County move forward with its truth and reconciliation efforts – but without the life-sized 1,400-pound bronze portrait.

“The new proposal to move the statue a third time to the Macaulay Church Museum not only represents a breach of contract for the treatment of Ruth Abernethy’s portrait of the young John A. Macdonald beginning his career in law in Picton in 1834, but it distorts the original intention of the project and alters the contract with a significant number of donors,” states Warrick in his deputation to council.

The Macdonald Project of Prince Edward County commissioned the portrait and presented it to the County in 2015 – the bicentennial of Macdonald’s birth. It was moved to storage in 2019 after a change in ownership at the Picton Armoury, with the new owners paying for its relocation to the forecourt of the Picton library.

The statue’s return in early 2020 became a catalyst for outcry that coincided with national reckoning about Macdonald’s complex legacy within the broader context of colonialism in Canada, and was vandalized. Tension over statues of Canada’s first prime minister continued across the country as citizens argued his building of the nation, and his mistreatment of Indigenous peoples. Following the discovery of unmarked graves at a former Kamloops Residential School, the sculpture was vandalized again, removed from Main Street in 2021 and placed in storage.

Since, the municipality had been exploring the sculpture as part of a permanent exhibit focused on the community’s reckoning with the national tragedy of the Indian residential school system in partnership with TTO and DFW.

“The proposed exhibit will not result in healing; it will stir up more controversy,” said Warrick.

Warrick says placing the sculpture beside the partner exhibits “places Macdonald on a continuous trial that appears to judge him guilty by association on charges of crimes such as cultural genocide.

“It is important to note that industrial schools were in place in Canada when Macdonald was 13,” said Warrick. “Twenty prime ministers administered the residential schools under the Indian Act.” (Jean Chretien was the prime minister when those schools were cancelled in 1996).”

Sir John Alexander Macdonald was the first prime minister of Canada, serving from 1867 to 1873 and from 1878 to 1891 (died in office).

“Macdonald did not invent industrial schools, nor residential schools. He was not prime minister when the Indian Act was passed in 1876… Industrial schools later became known as residential schools in 1920 when prime ministers Borden, Meighen and Mackenzie King made attendance compulsory. With Macdonald, attendance was voluntary.”

Warrick adds this complicated history cannot be understood in an exhibit involving three separate messages, and during visits that are typically less than an hour. He also spoke to the need for a museum to focus on facts of history more than conversation.

He also states the Macdonald Project is not a local project solely, as it involved more than a thousand donors mainly through Friends of Macdonald, Toronto, and special events held from Calgary to Ottawa over the five-year project; but it also included support from hundreds of Prince Edward County foundations, businesses and individuals.

Artist Ruth Abernethy, in a letter, stated she applauds the idea of the portrait as part of a reconciliation effort, but “Macdonald’s narrative must have equal, culturally-sensitive preparation, and have no intent to defame John A. Macdonald.”

Councillor Kate MacNaughton had hoped council would consider voting to keep the statue in storage until a way forward could be found to include it in the exhibit. She learned that attempt may lead to legal wrangling since the donors requested to have the sculpture returned and she did not receive support to make a motion.

Chris Palmer, Supervisor of Museums and Cultural Services, stated in his report to council that after consultation with the public, potential partners and other interested parties, and without a viable location to display the statue on municipal property, staff recommend the exhibit move forward without the ‘Holding Court’ sculpture.”

“The same community story can be told without it,” said Palmer. “The County Museums would curate that portion of the exhibit using news articles, photography, and art and with partners, continue to have the challenging conversation the ‘Holding Court’ statue represented in the community in the summer of 2021. A Prince Edward County version of the truth and reconciliation conversation that was, is, and will continue to happen across Canada.”

With the project in its partnership proposal stage, there has been no finalization of content by any of the partners. It is intended to be a permanent exhibit with content that will change over time.

Sharing input from the municipality’s ‘Have Your Say’ online public consultation, Palmer’s report notes “It is evident in comparative data that while engagement on this issue may remain of high importance for some, the majority of the community seems to have disengaged as suggested by the 2,000 less visits between the old (2020) and new (2022) Have Your Say projects.”

He noted staff received about a half dozen calls regarding the “A Path Forward” consultation, and about a dozen direct emails.

“Some believe the statue should be melted down or destroyed, others believe it should be returned and celebrated; the majority wish to see it in a context that includes Indigenous perspectives.”

Though many have suggested the sculpture be located at the court house, that location is not municipal property. Warrick says the Macdonald Project is also in favour of that location. The courthouse was used in a Macdonald Project fundraising presentation surrounding the ‘Double Hanging’ trial and Warrick notes the group “worked with several layers of management to make it happen and it was a great success”.

He notes there are currently four offers for storage and one offer for exhibition that the group will examine.

Approval of the ‘A Path Forward’ draft agreement between the municipality and the TTO and Downie and Wenjack fund means work may begin on its creation and curation.

The Tsi Tyónnheht Onkwawén:na, Language and Cultural Centre was established in 2000 by community members concerned with the revitalization of the Mohawk language in Tyendinaga. The name means “keeping the words alive”. Services by the TTO include a nursery program, a Mohawk immersion elementary school, an adult learning program and other community resources.

The Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund (DWF) aims to build cultural understanding and create a path toward reconciliation while improving the lives of Indigenous people by building awareness, education and connections between all people.

The first Downie Wenjack Legacy Room in Canada was launched in 2017 in Miss Lily’s Cafe at Books & Company downtown Picton and was attended by Mike Downie, brother of the late Gord Downie (Tragically Hip band front man) who lived in the County for many years.

The A Path Forward agreement states any revenue related to the exhibit be split evenly between the three partners and that the museum facilitates the curation and presentation through grants, sponsors and donations.

The agreement seeks a permanent exhibit, beginning with A Path Forward, that is free of charge to educators and schools first physically, then virtually, as funding allows. Entry to the exhibit would be by donation with proceeds to be shared.

It also asks that the County Museums continue community engagement as a host of speaker series, creative works and events involving these and other community partners.

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  1. Fred says:

    I wish Sir John could speak to this nonsense today and set the record straight. We are living in a sad time of cancel whatever to quiet the loudess voices.

  2. Dave Thomas says:

    We are all flawed, including those whose accomplishments warrant bronze sculptures of their likenesses. This is especially true when we examine the lives of these celebrated individuals from our past through the hyper-focused lens of the present.

    Educate, don’t negate. Tell the stories, warts and all. Vandalism of statues such as Macdonald’s needs a courageous, not cowardly, response.

  3. Argyle says:

    There should be a more equitable solution. A lot of time, effort and dialogue has been wasted. Every indication is that ‘woke’ culture is firmly in control.

  4. Sam Lanfranco says:

    Banishing the Sir John A. McDonald sculpture to oblivion is the local community missing an important learning opportunity. Without doubt he was a flawed individual involved in the “founding” of Canada. I would have rather seen us retain the sculpture in some context that incorporated it as a learning opportunity. Not including it in “A Path Forward” museum exhibit reminds me of American philosopher George Santayana’s comment: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” as stated in his “The Life of Reason”. Something will be lost and our future will be less, not more.

  5. Chuck says:

    Sad ending, but better Sir John goes somewhere that he is not continually vandalized by those in PEC that go unpunished. Vandals win the day!

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