Statue re-installation opens door for meaningful reconciliation talks

Like any child of the 1980’s growing up in Prince Edward County, I learned of a few local factoids that were intertwined into the regular Canadian history studies at my dear Athol Central School.

One of those local facts that stuck with me and my fellow classmates was the fact the Father of Confederation himself, Sir John A. Macdonald spent time living and working in Prince Edward County as a young man.

Long before he became Canada’s first Prime Minister and led the charge for the unifying British North America Act and oversaw the creation of the bonding of this country by steel rail, we were all taught Sir John A. himself practiced law at the historic Superior Courthouse and won his first case there.

At least for me at the time and years later, this seemed to be a big deal for this little map dot of a town. The very notion that someone so valued in Canadian history and regarded as a great leader of his time could hang around a hard-scrabble settlement like 1830’s Picton and make something of himself was presented as potential inspiration and regarded as a great feat.

Taking my teachings from adolescence and into adulthood, I never thought much more about Sir John A. Macdonald other than he was a revered Canadian Prime Minister that got his lawyering start here. The unveiling of the Ruth Abernathy sculpture on July 1, 2015 was a celebrated occasion as thousands packed Main Street to see a visage of Macdonald practicing law with a prisoner’s box nearby and seemed entirely appropriate for a community that valued its history and heritage and wanted to beautify its downtown core.

But less than a year after that momentous occasion, another temporary Prince Edward County citizen presented something to change my perception.

Gord Downie’s The Secret Path brought the story of Chanie Wenjack and the brutal residential school system to the forefront and, while Downie’s efforts didn’t start the concept of truth and reconciliation in this country, it was certainly a catalyst to getting it to the eyes and ears and minds of those in the this country who needed to be taught what had transpired in the colonial creation of our home land.

I’m ashamed to admit that, up until I learned about a little Ojibwe (Anishinaabe) First Nations boy who ran away from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora in 1966 and died in the cold and the dark while trying to walk 600 km back home to Marten Falls First Nation, I was completely ignorant to how the government of Canada tried to systemically eradicate indigenous culture and assimilate generations of people.

That lead me to examine further how Canada was ‘settled’ and how the conquering colonizers divided up this country. A lot of that reading and examination lead me back to leaders of the day and the person whose countenance has been ‘Holding Court’ on Picton’s Main St for the past four years.

Growing unease with Sir John A. Macdonald’s statue is how I would describe my feelings towards its place in this community and that uneasiness was churned back up this week when it was announced Holding Court would be reinstalled in front of the Picton Library.

It says here if we are going to own our community’s small role in the development of Canada’s first Prime Minister then we should do it lock, stock and barrel-warts and all. Part of that ownership should be required attendance at next week’s visit by author, educator and activist Niigaan Sinclair. Sinclair, whose father Honourable Justice Murray Sinclair was the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, will no doubt make us feel uncomfortable about Macdonald’s role in this country’s treatment of its first people. That’s why it’s so important. Delving into cultural genocide committed in the name of progress should be uncomfortable.

-Jason Parks