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Working Group declares Macdonald statue should be removed

By Sue Capon
The ‘Holding Court’ Statue Working Group, has declared the bronze portrait of Sir John A Macdonald as a young lawyer should be removed from downtown Picton.

Following nine meetings, the group made the decision Oct. 20 through confidential ballots. The five options provided for ranked votes to show a most-to-least preference included remove, modify, relocate, replace, and keep.

The decision moves to the Heritage Advisory Committee next week for its comments before it is to be sent to council Nov. 17.

The vote, was not unanimous, but “it was clear and it was not close,” said Judith Burfoot, a committee member, to members of her All Welcome Here, Facebook group focusing on anti-racism in Prince Edward County.

Canada’s first prime minister remains the subject of tension across the nation as citizens both protest and support his legacy of building the nation and his mistreatment of Indigenous peoples.

Retired university professor David Warrick, spokesman for the Friends of Macdonald Prince Edward County and Quinte Region, says he’s disappointed with the decision from the working group members.

Warrick, a retired professor of Humanities from Toronto’s Humber College, calls the decision regrettable.

“The art work showcases an historical fact that forever links this community to the country’s first Prime Minister,” said Warrick, referring to the statue depicting a 19-year-old Macdonald presenting and winning his first court case in the Picton Court House on Oct. 8, 1834. Macdonald and family lived and worked here for several years.

“It was intended to engage the community in a conversation about its history during 2015, and was one of many national events commemorating Macdonald’s birth. According to two Angus Reid polls in the last two years and one more recently in September by Leger, Canadians from coast to coast supported keeping controversial statues 2:1.”

Warrick added the project had widespread community support – including the unanimous endorsement of Prince Edward County Council in 2015, the Speaker of the Ontario Legislature, the Lieutenant Governor, all parties of the Ontario legislature, the Law Society of Ontario, and the Premier of Ontario. It was supported by grants from many institutions including Heritage Canada, the Parrott Foundation and especially by individual donors and hundreds of in-kind contributions over five years.

For Burfoot, the unveiling of the statue on Canada Day in 2015 before hundreds of people celebrating on Main Street “was the worst moment I experienced since coming here,” she explained to her group members. “So many people unreservedly celebrating a colonizer. So many people willing to excuse what he had done to Indigenous and Chinese people. Or not even caring. It said (to me) ‘you don’t matter as a human being’ loud and clear. Or, you matter less than us.”

Now five years later, Burfoot says people have grown and learned.

“We have thought seriously about reconciliation and our own personal, individual obligation and desires to be better, to do better. We’ve opened our hearts and are willing to say that all of our friends, neighbours and colleagues deserve to walk down Main without that particular punch in the gut.”

The Working Group’s criteria for its recommendation, Burfoot noted, was around the three main principles of Haudenosaunee law: Ka’nikonh’ri:io (commitment, respect and responsibility), Skénnenkowa (the ability to resolve issues, love, and gratitude), and Ka’satsténhsera (generosity and collective thinking).

“To me, the decision has been made. To me, our council should be looking for ideas about how we move forward, together. How we all keep talking and learning and hearing and respecting each other. About education and history and anti-racism. How we move through truly difficult and challenging conversations in ways that make this place even better.”

The committee is composed of eight members: two from Black Indigenous People of Colour, Black Lives Matter, All are Welcome; one from The Mohawks of Bay of Quinte; two from the Heritage Advisory Committee; one from the Museum Advisory Committee; one member of Council; David Warrick from Friends of Macdonald. Of the eight eligible voters, seven voted.

“We do not see how this Working Group’s review contributes to a constructive, respectful discussion of our shared past,” added Warrick. “And we do not see how the composition of the committee reflects the views of the people of the County and surrounding communities.” He said the Working Group has effectively dismissed the 2,000 petitioners (both online and in hard copy from many locations in the County and Quinte region) who voted to keep the statue in downtown Picton.

The Holding Court statue was created by renowned Canadian artist Ruth Abernethy to mark the 200th anniversary of Macdonald’s birth in 1815.

“The project took years of volunteer effort,” says Warrick. “It was gifted to the community under a contract registered as a bylaw under section 10 of the Municipal Act with our local government. We are reviewing that legal contract and are saddened that artist Ruth Abernethy was forced to write the Holding Court Working Group this week to stop their efforts to destroy her work-one of the suggestions.”

Her artwork was vandalized twice this summer and continues to embroil the community in a heated, and often nasty debate.

“I am not certain we have learned anything from our history,” he says. “We seem to be repeating it, re-packaging anger, resentment, bitterness, and revenge into a toxic cocktail that inhibits civil, respectful dialogue, reconciliation, and the development of creative steps forward. How does removal of the artwork change history? How does removal encourage reconciliation? How will it heal this community after a very divisive debate? I am sorry that we did not use this moment to do something truly remarkable together by following up on the many positive suggestions from community members who signed the petition. They represent the majority of County residents who support change through more public education, not less.”

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  1. olmnonthemtn says:

    Henry Garand the the statue’s witness box docket could include visual, written and on occasion pop up oral presentations re: efforts at reconciliation as well a presentations of other issues that need full presentations it could truly represent judicious debate

  2. ADJ says:

    Did the government of the day know the truth about the schools? the abuse, strict punishment ,starvation and isolation? Was it just ignored by both federal governments for all those years. Why was the Catholic and Anglican churches designated to run the school in the first place and were they ever inspected ? These are questions that don’t have answers. I think we can blame both Parties for them ignoring and indifference to this horrible part of Canadian history. I still support the removal of the statue from Main street. If it wasn’t it still would seem we were ignoring the truth. Thank you Gord Downey.

  3. Paul Cole says:

    There is a reason why it was called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Reconciliation is obvious, reconciling happens once the Truth is known, and the Truth is most Regular Canadian Folks back then did not know what was happening in John Macdonalds Residential Schools, those Truth have only recently been told…

  4. olmnonthemtn says:

    One of the guiding principles of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is “All Canadians, as Treaty peoples, share responsibility for establishing and maintaining mutually respectful relationships.”

    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.”

    The Manitoba Metis Federation did not endorse the removal of Lord Wolseley’s name from buildings, streets, or neighbourhoods. President Chartrand of the Federation stated: “We acknowledge the social and economic harm that has been done to the Metis and other Indigenous people at the hands of Wolseley and his Reign of Terror. It is important that we keep these names around so that we can use them to educate the public on the suffering of our ancestors,” He continued. “Using these historic figures, we can better tell our true story and ensure that colonial history does not repeat itself.

    Yet it appears we have a review committee that has reached a conclusion which runs the risk of being “counterproductive to reconciliation” and may have been made with a bias
    to condemn without full consideration of the issue

  5. Fred says:

    The County has always been recognized for our strength and ability to build rather than tear down. Removing Sir John A does nothing to recognize or learn from past mistakes by our ancestors who supported those actions. Many other past decisions by governments and the population of the time were in error and we learned from that and grew. The man currently in question beleved he was doing the right thing and the public supported the same. He erred as did the general public of the time. Then there is the good and some would say great, as beinng the lead as a Nation Builder.

  6. Gary says:

    With a strong County support of Sir John A remaining in place, this will really be a difficult Council vote. It will be recorded and no doubt remembered, Should be an interesting November 17th Special Council meeting.

  7. angela says:

    Let’s hope that council refuses to be bullied into removing a statue that once received its approval. Those opposed to it came out of the woodwork fully five years after its unveiling and most of them are not locals. If the statue is removed the tail will wag the dog. It will be interesting to see what these knights who ride for social justice find to protest next. There is a large bust of Sir Thomas Picton somewhere in the town. For many years he found sanctuary in the library, then was moved to the old town hall. Picton even had a town named after him much to the horror of some of the come from aways. And there is the matter of Rev. William Macaulay who admired him and proposed his name for the town. Perhaps Macaulay Heritage Park should be renamed? Instead of campaigning to have Sir John removed his detractors might make better use of their time by attempting to right social injustices of the present day – hunger and homelessness to name two. We cannot change the past and even if the statue is removed or hidden inside the court house, Sir John was Canada’s first prime minister and he did live for a time in Prince Edward County. That can never be changed. Good luck with trying to change the name of our town, as well.

  8. Henri Garand says:

    It’s disappointing that the Working Group fixated on matters of history but seems to have ignored matters of art. A statue is not history, and the Macdonald statue, in particular, is not connected to Macdonald’s political career. Unlike statues of elderly men standing on pedestals, it is not even a tribute to a lifetime of public service.

    The iconography of Holding Court is unique and ambiguous, and it invites multiple interpretations. While the image can be seen as representing Macdonald’s self-defense in 1834, it also accommodates other interpretations because of the empty chair in the prisoner’s dock. Who is on trial? Is it just Macdonald, those who share his views, Canadian history, or present Canadian society?

    In other words, the statue offers an opportunity to address issues of Truth and Reconciliation, not simply make them disappear. The history of art includes many works that were controversial and made people uncomfortable. If Holding Court unsettles viewers, that is not an argument for removing it but for using it to confront distressing historical and contemporary realities.

  9. Judith Pearse says:

    Could someone explain to me how Sir John A has to go yet every store along Main Street gets a free pass to sell products made in China, a country detaining more than a million Uighurs in reeducation camps?

  10. Judith Pearse says:

    I confess. Today I listened to The Great Canadian Railway Trilogy by Gordon Lightfoot and I loved it. I was also wearing my Sir John A. T-shirt.

  11. Emily says:

    I hope Council stands up to the minority pressure and chooses to leave Sir John A standing tall. Important decisions such as this cannot succumb to a Cancel Culture group or by the criminal acts of vandalism that have been inflicted with no arrests.

  12. Dennis Fox says:

    If you saw the last USA presidential debate, then you heard how Trump separated hispanic children from their parents (now over 500 kids can’t be matched with their mother) and how the world has condemned Trump for these actions. John A. was guilty of the same crime with our aboriginal people – but he did it by the many of thousands. It is time for our generation of Canadians to right that wrong. Some want to minimize this action of moving a piece of moulded metal as being “politically correct” – I call it doing the right thing.

  13. Betty says:

    As this statue seems to be annoying to many people walking past it on Main Street, Picton, I think it should be moved to the courthouse yard, where he could stand in peace and the majority of us could be as happy as we were at the time it was unveiled.

  14. Dqve says:

    A quote from the Glove and Mail,—“to be politically correct should I now burn all my Ten dollar bills?

  15. David Harrington says:

    Should be located to courthouse where he did his most work

  16. Chuck says:

    The Quinte News poll which overwhemingly supports the statue remaining is a legit and good reference. No bias, just an up or down or indiffferent question. No leading questions.

  17. robert sandfield says:

    Applying our 2020 selves to pioneer times next to impossible. Put an explanation plaque with the statue and call it a day. In all probability there is not a single person from the 1800’s that could pass muster with 2020 values, including famous religious figures, etc. This is heading to 165 or more years ago, it just won’t work with today’s situation. Better plan to stop naming ANYTHING after current people, as more information is available they all look suspect to somebody.

  18. Dennis Fox says:

    The Quinte News poll is a joke. Anyone from anywhere can vote on it, plus it provides very little background on the issue. Ignore it.

  19. John says:

    Ms. Burford – thank you for enlightening us. There is a statue of Joseph Brant that stands in Victoria Square in Brantford. Brantford is, of course, named after Joseph Brant and there is a Brant Street and Brant Hospital in Burlington, Ontario. But, Joseph Brant owned 30 black slaves! And this at a time when slavery had been banned in Ontario (by those British colonists no less). Should we be advocating taking down the statute of Joseph Brant and making the necessary name changes to Brantford and Brant Street?

  20. Charlie Campbell says:

    I wasn’t asked if I wanted a statue of Sir John Eh to begin with, but as a statue, it looks ok. (Read the words) I don’t think that many people were aware of ‘our’ history, as we now know it, when the statue was put up. I certainly had no idea. But that is the reality of our history. I haven’t seen any names posted, or referred to, of those people who were opposed of what was happening back in the day. I would guess that a good many people were as racist back then; suspect it would have been considered to be the norm? We would be pretty naïve to think that there were no racists now.

    The good thing is, we are continuing to learn and hear about what happened. The schools that the indigenous children were forced to go to. The indignities suffered. The many reservations still today without clean drinking water, poor or no sanitary systems. Questionable housing, although the Governments have promised for decades that they were going to do right. Decades. Read today’s paper.

    I am sure that removing statues and renaming towns and buildings will make us feel better (almost like out of sight/ out of mind??) and we can puff out our chests and proudly boast, saying ‘see what we have done’.

    Perhaps a bust of Sir John Eh should be put up in every town and village. With the acknowledgement that yes, he was Canada’s first PM.. but also who he was… ! And, what so many of our forefathers and leaders were.

    Obviously like most everyone else, I have had to change my opinion about what we were like as a county. Our arrogance when we compared ourselves to the US.

    I would like to know more about who we were. The Truth and Reconciliation. The inquiry into the missing and murdered Indigenous women. The investigations or the lack of. The quaint reservations stuck in the bush with Federal and Provincial unfulfilled promises of help.

    If removing a statue is the start.. then let it be a beginning. If you just think that removing a statue is a good idea because your neighbor thinks so.. hmmmm

    I also suggested that the Sir John A. MacD boulevard going into Kingston, be renamed “Black Lives Matter’ boulevard…

    I like being a Canadian. I am proud to say that I am Canadian. But I am under no obligation to be proud of everything that ‘we’
    did. But we need to keep in mind, that EVERYTHING that happened in the past is what got us to the point where we are today.

    What about tomorrow??

  21. Jack says:

    Quinte news did a poll on this subject just recently.
    Right decision-29%
    No statue should stay-66%
    Undecided-5%

  22. Mike Rodgers says:

    angela
    No truer words spoken, same thing happen with old fire hall, roughly 40 people had the voice for decision.

  23. angela says:

    We certainly learned something from this. There has been much talk of the unwelcoming ‘them vs us’ mind set in our county. Ms Burfoot observes that the unveiling of the statue in 2915 was the worst thing that has happened to her since coming here. Going by the names of those opposed to the statue a lot of others who came here objected to it as well. Few locals have lent their voices to the call for removal of the statue. The strong protests have come from those who have come from away and have chosen to “enlighten” us. Fortunately council is not notorious for listening to its advisory committees. Hopefully it will receive the committee’s decision then make its own choice in the matter.

  24. Mike says:

    I’m glad they are removing a statue of him. He committed genocidal acts against Canadian Indigenous people during his time as Canada’s prime minister.

  25. Michelle says:

    Why we must ask is Cancel Culture not demanding the Town of Picton change it’s name from that of a slave owner?

  26. Dennis Fox says:

    I would like to thank this committee for doing a tough job. Some claim that their decision does not represent the majority of the community. I doubt very much that anyone knows that for sure and one petition, depending upon how it was worded, does not represent anything – nor does it replace knowledgeable discussion. Some people also claim that the statue is a work of art(which is debatable), however, that doesn’t dismiss the fact that it offends a lot of people. Finding peace and place for everyone in Canada is far more important than any statue.

    Removing the statue doesn’t change our history, but it does make us more aware of what our true history is – that John A. was Canada’s first PM – but his racist and bigoted views and policies make it even more important now as to how we represent his accomplishments. A stand alone statue without a true description of his actions is not history – instead it would make us guilty of perpetuating a legend based on myths and false information – or even worse – based on nothing!

    Queen’s University recently has come to the decision to remove Macdonald’s name from their law building – then we in Picton should take heart in knowing that this statue is out of place and needs to be removed.

    The Committee made the right decision and I thank them for it.

  27. Fred says:

    Thank goodness this non elected working group does not have the final say on this.

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