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Sir John will continue to hold court in front of Picton’s library

By Sue Capon
The Sir John A. Macdonald sculpture will continue to hold court in front of Picton’s Public Library.

Council made the decision in a 12-2 vote following a four-and-a-half hour virtual special meeting Tuesday night.

“We have learned a great deal as a result of the conversations about tolerance and respecting different points of view,” said Mayor Steve Ferguson. “There has been a tremendous amount of respectful, courteous conversation on Sir John A and the Holding Court statue. Regrettably, there’s also been some villainization of those with different points of view; and examples of verbal and physical vandalism exacted on volunteer members of the public, and those from who we can learn a great deal as we move forward.”

He called the negative discourse unwarranted and entirely unfair and several times throughout the meeting, thanked the members of the Holding Court Working Group, Prince Edward Heritage Advisory Committee and staff, for significant contributions.

“I am also impressed by the work that went into the deputations and the passion with which they were delivered, and the comments made,” he said.

The meeting included 12 10-minute deputations and eight three-minute comments from the public, along with extensive reports from the Holding Court Working Group, the Prince Edward Heritage Advisory Committee, and many emails and correspondence from the public.

Councillors Ernie Margetson and Kate MacNaughton were opposed to keeping the statue in front of the library.

Margetson agreed with many councillors that his position had evolved over the months of discussion and though he shared in the enthusiasm of the sculpture when it was unveiled in 2015, “my sentiments, and times have changed in five short years. The present location is offensive and painful to some. I believe these people… the public square in town should be open to all.” He thought the statue would be better relocated.

“As a Loyalist community, we must come to terms with our colonial past if we are ever to dream of becoming a safe and inclusive community,” said deputant Shannon Helm. “We may no longer be a “proud” Loyalist town; but we will still be a Loyalist town. The truth is you can’t erase history. Moving a statue to create safe community spaces, erases nothing; but it shows respect for the survivors of genocide and systemic racism. It signals to Black, Indigenous People of Colour that our community is listening to their experiences.” said Helm, who is now teaching in a Cree community.

“Taking down a statue because we are recognizing the truth of the impact that this man and his policies had, and has, on Indigenous people, has a feeling of reconciliation to me. But to be clear, it is only a baby step towards true reconciliation. It is a gesture. A gesture that speaks loudly that all are welcome here, that we would like everyone to feel safe in our community spaces. It is a start down a long path to reconciliation, and I hope that this council takes more than baby steps down that path.”

Casey Heintzman told council that “when you’ve lived, worked, celebrated and grieved with First Nations people, you start to feel uncomfortable with your history as a colonizer and with statues commemorating a key player in the establishment of the residential school system.”

Most of the deputations spoke in favour of keeping Sir John on Main Street.

“We should all strive for a balanced, accurate judgment of history, from which we can learn and which informs us with perspective on future actions,” said Brian Barber. “We must always strive to do better, while not forgetting how we got here.”

Former mayor Leo Finnegan was in his last year of office when he attended the first gathering in 2010 to discuss the creation of the sculpture.

“Thousands of dollars were raised and spent to make this project a reality,” he noted, adding “Chief R Donald Maracle of the Bay of Quinte Mohawks has been quoted as saying leave the statue and add to the inscription. I have met Chief R Donald on several occasions. He is a very intelligent man who does not make frivolous

“Picton can also choose another route: a bold route of reconciliation, one that recognizes Macdonald as a young man who walked its streets, and who went on to shape a country,” said deputant Patrice Dutil. “At the same time, it can honour the indigenous people of Prince Edward County, who knew Macdonald, who loved and hated Macdonald, but who heroically resisted the advances of white society and who are here today, proud and honourable, eager to take their place as honoured Canadians. Picton can be the place of an annual national conversation.  That would be a blazing path to the truth and, to me, the only path to a sustainable and fruitful reconciliation.”

Councillor MacNaughton observed community opinion “is all over the place” and offered apology for her “inability to listen”, quoting a person who asked if people care about a statue, or her.

“That resonated with me. I want an open mind. I was 100 per cent keep the statue and use it to educate. I was firm, clear and public and now I feel like I need to learn and grow, and pivot.”

She also stated council should be “held hostage by fear of legal action. It’s not a deciding factor, but a decision in conscience.”

The legal implication through the donor agreement contract with the County stipulates the artist approve any new location and retains rights regarding how it is displayed, altered or modified.

Thus, councillor Phil St.-Jean in his motion to council, asks municipal staff to consult with legal advice, the Macdonald Project Group, artist Ruth Abernathy, as well as the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte and other Indigenous groups with ties to Prince Edward County.

He asks for the development of “meaningful, respectful and historically accurate messaging to be added to the display to encourage public discussion and education; adhering to the guiding principles of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations.”

His motion also seeks a public art policy for the County be developed by the end of September 2021 and reaffirmation of a commitment to anti-racist attitudes and to inclusiveness of marginalized peoples in the community.

“I too, have learned,” said St.-Jean. “I feel the sculpture needs to remain on Picton Main Street so it can be used as a tool to educate – not just me, not just you, but the next generation and all who come to our community.

“We owe it to our Indigenous friends and neighbours to tell their story. Taking this sculpture off of Main Street, in my view, will set that discussion back. It will set it aside. If anything, we have learned that we need to have more discussion. We need to have more conversation in a civil and respectful manner respecting both perspectives – the colonizers and the indigenous people.”

Several councillors agreed the library was the best location to foster further education when it comes to Macdonald and Canadian history.

Councillor John Hirsch noted seeing the sculpture, for some people, is similar to how seeing a cenotaph reminds people of another uncomfortable time.

“Leave these things in place. Look at the sculpture and emotions it evokes in the same way, and make this an educational experience. Leave it in place, adding the additional information to the extent that we can legally do that.”

“The sculpture has done a pretty good job over the course of many months in opening many of our eyes – whether it’s us in municipal government or whether its members of the public, about the importance of this conversation,” said Mayor Ferguson. “It’s fair to say it’s because we did see deep digging to work to understand the complexity of this matter and we have the opportunity for that to continue. We need a greater understanding – of Macdonald and his time, and the Indigenous issues – and it is not something that we can ignore. Now we really have to do considerable heavy lifting.”

The Macdonald Group and artist Abernathy will be consulted as to next steps to create something to augment and contextualize the sculpture, Ferguson says, “and whatever form that takes will involve consultation to get it right.”

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  1. Michelle says:

    Contrary to the community facebook page that states we have an all white Coucil. There are at least 4 Council members who have native indigenous heritage. Council determined that we are better to build than tear down, better to educate how we have evolved. Good on them.

  2. Ryan says:

    You should have to be dead for at least 500 years before a statue in your honour can be erected. Maybe a 500 year window will lead to a more nuanced view of what A persons legacy actually was. This guy was by all accounts pretty terrible in a number of ways. Lets see if he is worthy of adulation in another 300 odd years because his legacy shure doesn’t stand up in a positive light after 150-200.

  3. Henri Garand says:

    Anyone defending the Working Group’s recommendation should read “Comments on the Report of the “Holding Court” John A. Macdonald Statue Working Group,” contained in Item 7.1 (pp. 254-58) of Council’s agenda package for the special meeting. The document analyses the WG’s report and process of decision making from a professional heritage consultant’s perspective.

    The following comments are especially noteworthy:

    • “A major failing of the Report is that there is no quantitative or qualitative analysis of the public input.”
    • “The WG did not reach consensus and they were only able to produce the recommendation to remove the statue by an inconclusive, flawed, ranked secret ballot process.”

    My own analysis suggests that a one vote swing from “remove the statue” to “retain and modify it” could have changed the ballot outcome.

    According to the WG’s terms of reference, neither PEHAC nor Council was obliged to accept such a recommendation. Indeed, what were councilors to do except examine the matter for themselves and ultimately make a decision that reflects the views of 60 percent of those who provided feedback to the Working Group?

  4. Dennis Fox says:

    Thank you for your comments Paul Cole – I appreciate them. What comment came to my attention most profoundly was the one where the Macdonald statue was compared to our Cenotaph. The Cenotaph recognizes those Canadians who gave their life to defend this country and is a place where families/communities can respect that at least once a year – right up to modern day.

    The other is a political landmark based on the antiquated and paternalistic notion that Macdonald is our “Father” of Confederation – who went on to become the first PM of Canada. This same politician’s claim to fame in Picton was a brawl and he being a lawyer got himself off – in Picton court. This event is what the statue depicts and what some find pride in – but at the same time we have decided that his racist and bigoted policies and comments are not important enough to move his statue off of Main Street.

  5. Paul Cole says:

    Lip service like the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions recommendations and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Inquiry lip service paid no action required. Anyone who expected a different outcome was sadly duped in believing something would change even after a recommendation from their very own working group, nothing more then an act of futility.

    However that being said John Macdonald standing on Main St. makes no difference now that the TRUTH is known about his racist bigoted views, which are very clearly evident in the annals of history along with his accomplishments. He will be judged fairly by future generations based on the TRUTH and that’s all that really matters.

  6. angela says:

    Truly scary to read some of the comments on the Facebook community page.

  7. Dennis Fox says:

    Placing the statue and the decision aside for now, what does concern me is the pretense of Council appointing citizen volunteers to committees to investigate various matters on behalf of the municipality and then ignores their advice. They give the appearance of wanting citizen input and consultations, but they really don’t.

    To name only a few examples of ignored committees – from this latest working group, to the Citizens Assembly(recommendations on the size of council), to Water Rates, to the building and connections committees – many people gladly gave their time and work – only to see their input ignored. I think in the future, anyone volunteering for such a committee needs to ask how committed Council is to their own process? This latest example of them ignoring their own committee’s recommendations (again) for the statue to be removed, does not bode well for the future.

  8. Michelle says:

    Social media extreme groups that will not have any reasonable discussion that strays from their viewpoints are dangerous particularly to youth. I could quote some of the hate comments but I will choose not to do so. I have seen it evolve in the States and their mess but I am afraid it has spread here. Everyone has a right to disagree respectively, but not to promote hatred and call for extreme actions against our democracy.

  9. Gary says:

    Some radicals on a Facebook community page are calling for vandalism to Sir John A. They are also accusing our council of white supremacy, and even worse, towards our Mayor. Truly sad this type of social media is allowed.

  10. J says:

    The right decision was made. Learn from our mistakes, our past, keep the reminders in place so we can move forward and become an inclusive community.

  11. Teena says:

    A decision has been democratically made, whether we agree or not. Now we move on. Get involved in educating Canadians about ALL of our history. Change what you can.

  12. Todd says:

    Glad to see the right decision was made. Well done.

  13. Glen Holm says:

    Shameful. What an embarrassment for Prince Edward County and especially Picton.

  14. Michelle says:

    Should people who protest constantly be allowed to stand in front of Sir John A on municipal property and block public access? I think not. It should be free unobstructed space for those that wish to visit.

  15. angela says:

    We don’t need to sell Picton to visitors. We have hundreds of visitors – more than we can accommodate. Most seem happy enough to be photographed with Sir John. When will we stop arguing over what happened more than 150 years ago and turn our attention to today’s pressing problems?

  16. AK says:

    Sue, the person Kate quoted was 16 yr old Moira Gaddes of Sophiasburgh who did a deputation to the working group.

  17. AK says:

    Gemma, your comment “It’s quite telling that the council has chosen to favour the argument that the statue can be used to educate the White community at the expense of those who have spoken up about their negative experiences.” is bang on the head.

    Community members are physically ill and feel unwelcome in their own community. Disappointed but not surprised.

  18. Susan says:

    Perhaps the naysayers should have listened closely to the well informed historical deputations that enlightened the very good things Sir John did for indigenous people. He was ahead of his time and most of the population of the time. Council acted wisely. The working group were not decision makers and their flawed process hurt their recommendation.

  19. Henri Garand says:

    Yesterday’s council meeting was a remarkable step towards truth and reconciliation. As I listened through the long evening to the many deputations, I wondered how councilors would respond to the various arguments and divided communal needs. How does one choose between competing historical visions, sympathize with emotional maternal pleas, respect majority opinion, and still support long-term social goals? I hope all those with strong views witnessed the individual deliberations of councilors as they wrestled with the issues and most of them chose to look to a hopeful future rather than simply quiet present discord. Legal restrictions were mentioned but not really discussed.

    However, one piece of information in council’s agenda package for the special meeting should be highlighted. The Donor Agreement, Item 7.1, contains the following clause: “The Artist shall retain perpetual rights under Canadian law that pertain to artistic expression, including the setting and manner in which this work of art is displayed (e.g. section 28.2 of the Copyright Act of Canada). Any modification to a painting, sculpture or engraving is deemed to prejudice the author.”

    This should put an end to nonsensical claims that Holding Court is not a work of art. Actions such as melting the sculpture or disposing of it under water would have been illegal as well as disrespectful of the artist and the status of a creative work. It’s one thing to dispute the merits of a work of art; it’s completely absurd to deny the simple reality established under Canadian law.

    Going forward, I hope Holding Court comes to be appreciated both as a unique work of art and for the role it will play, with a new plaque, in fostering truth and reconciliation. Council deserves to be congratulated for adopting a reasonable compromise.

  20. Genna Kusch says:

    It’s quite telling that the council has chosen to favour the argument that the statue can be used to educate the White community at the expense of those who have spoken up about their negative experiences. Why even have the Working Group if their recommendation, which reflects a contemporary attitude, was to be ignored? Former mayor Leo Finnegan hit the nail on the head with regards to council’s decision: a lot of money was spent on this statue.
    Often a call for a balanced judgement of history is really just a veiled argument for maintaining the status quo. “Yeah sure there was genocide but it got us the CPR!” Do a little reading about Sir John A’s policies and character and it’s shocking that he is someone anyone would choose to characterize as heroic, which is what the pose, material and scale of the statue do. But commissioning new art, that better reflects a balanced telling of history would cost more money so let’s just slap a plaque on this one and call it a day.
    It’s also clearly designed to be a photo opportunity for tourists. Is this the Picton we want to sell to visitors?

  21. Dennis Fox says:

    I want to thank Councillors Ernie Margetson and Kate MacNaughton for showing the courage to vote for what is right – not for what is only popular. The final decision arrived at was not unexpected, but it is disappointing.

    Personally, I do very much oppose the threat of legal action being introduced in what was supposed to be a community discussion – to arrived at a “best” decision. I found that having a legal threat highlighted when it was, made the process somewhat of a farce. If your argument is not winning the day, then threaten legal action – how mundane! If there were true legalities involved, then council should not have made this appear as if the community was involved in a decision – when there was none to be made!

    No doubt the issue of statues (John A. or others) is not over. Now we will all wait to see what the Macdonald Project and the artist come up with – to augment the sculpture and to tell Canadian history in their terms by their rules.

  22. Mark says:

    Today,quite Proud of the 12 Councilors wisdom.

  23. Bruce Nicholson says:

    Thank you Council !!

  24. Teena says:

    The library location is a perfect place to learn. Thank you!

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