I am writing to add my voice to those who feel that Picton’s statue of Sir John A. Macdonald is inappropriate and needlessly hurtful in its present context.
Macdonald’s key role in the establishment of residential schools, policies of forced starvation, culture and language eradication, land appropriation, and what amounted to incarceration on marginally productive and culturally foreign land, are well-documented. The damage was profound, and the long shadows, including systemic racism within education, justice, public health, employment, land rights, and virtually every other field, are persistent.
While those of us who are not Indigenous may not be able to put ourselves in the shoes of an Indigenous person seeing the statue of Macdonald, we can certainly imagine with empathy how devalued and provoked someone could feel. What does this artwork and its prominent position say about what and who this community values, and what and who it does not value? Or is unthinkingly blind to? And what does this say for inclusivity? Who does this community imagine it comprises?
Non-Indigenous people are not immune to negative effects either. Just as the duplicitous and cavalier disregard of treaties by governments has eroded the good character of our nation and hence its citizens, an affirmation of pride in a colonial past – one based on heinous and dishonourable behaviour – is fed by our choice of public art and monuments. In these ways, we can make ourselves stupid instead of thoughtful.
I do not know what the best fate for the Macdonald statue is, but to leave it in a place of prominence on Main Street, unaccompanied by an illuminating companion piece by a First Nations artist, is unacceptable. As the visual tends to be more broadly accessible and impactful than the written, the inclusion of a plaque detailing Macdonald’s racist policies is insufficient by itself.
Arguments have been made for the removal of such pieces as the Macdonald statue. And arguments have been made for keeping them, along with ameliorating additions, as acknowledgments of historic truths and for their educational value. Whatever your committee recommends to council, it must be informed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call to action No. 79.
As sculptures go, Ruth Abernethy’s Macdonald statue is beautifully executed and shows him in such an ‘animated’ slice-of-life. And considerable citizen effort went into its commission. For these reasons, as well as the prominent and key role Macdonald played in the history of Canada, for better or for worse, the sculpture should not be destroyed. But wherever is deemed best for its placement, it must be accompanied by a prominent and appropriate ‘thickening’ of the story.
Whatever public art results from your efforts, it would be helpful if it included – as does the Macdonald statue – local history. What was the fate of local residents after UEL colonists arrived? Were First Nations children from the County and/or Tyendinaga sent to residential school (the nearest being Alderville near Rice Lake) or federal Indian Day Schools?
Deciding the matter by plebiscite, as I’ve recently seen suggested, has one very large problem: 90 per cent of the people may favour a position, but that does not make that position moral and right.