The lead organizer of the group that fundraised and campaigned for a bronze statue commemorating Canada’s first Prime Minister’s time in Prince Edward County to be installed in Picton says he’s disappointed with the decision of the Macdonald Working Group.
David Warrick, spokesperson for the Friends of Macdonald Prince Edward County and Quinte Region, issued a statement Wednesday regarding the decision of the Working Group of the Prince Edward County Heritage Advisory Committee to recommend removal of the statue of John. A. Macdonald from Picton’s Main Street. As directed by Prince Edward County Council after calls from the community to determine Ruth Abernathay’s bronze creation on municipal property, the Working Group of the Heritage Advisory Committee was given the task of recommending what to do with the statue of a young John A. Macdonald.
Comprised of eight members including representation from the County’s inclusionary All Welcome Here group, from The Mohawks of Bay of Quinte, the Heritage Advisory Committee, the Museum Advisory Committee, a member of Council and Warrick who represented the Friends of Macdonald.
Of the eight eligible voters, seven voted and the result was to remove the statue from the front of the Picton branch of the Prince Edward County Library. Of the five options provided by municipal staff, The ranked votes showed the preference : 1. remove 2. modify 3. relocate 4. replace and 5. keep.
This recommendation will be forwarded to the Heritage Advisory Committee for their comments before it is sent to Council for a possible vote on November 17, 2020.
The bronze portrait of a nineteen-year-old Macdonald depicts him presenting and winning his first court case in the Picton Court House on October 8, 1834. The work entitled Holding Court was created by Abernethy to mark the 200th anniversary of Macdonald’s birth in 1815 and was unveiled at a public event on Canada Day, 2015 before thousands of revellers.
Warrick called the decision to move the piece to storage and away from its prominent place in Picton “regrettable” in a statement.
“The art work showcases an historical fact that forever links this community to the country’s first Prime Minister. 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 said. “We emphatically believe Canadians need to explore their history and especially understand the larger context beyond the politicized cancel culture narratives.”
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.
“The project took years of volunteer effort,” says Warrick. “It was gifted to the community under a contract registered as a by-law 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,” Warrick said. “We do not see how this Working Group’s review contributes to a constructive, respectful discussion of our shared past. And we do not see how the composition of the committee reflects the views of the people of the County and surrounding communities.”
Holding Court was vandalized twice this summer-Once in the days leading up to July 1 and in the early morning hours of Canada Day- as culprits doused the statue with red paint and the conversation about Macdonald and his brief time in Prince Edward County has often led to further, more intense debate regarding his checkered legacy as Prime Minister.
While Macdonald’s efforts to unite Canada and his instrumental role in nation building can never be refuted, his abhorrent treatment of Indigenous people and his comments regarding the need to break their spirit and will have garnered much more attention in recent years, leading for more discussion on the practice of commemorating individuals with layered legacies.
Warrick added he took issue with how the Working Group effectively dismissed 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.
“I am not certain we have learned anything from our history,” he said. “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.”