The fate of a report from the John A Macdonald Working Group came before the Prince Edward Heritage Advisory Committee (PEHAC) on November 4. The working group was formed this past summer with the intent of providing a recommendation to PEHAC as to the fate of the contentious Holding Court statue currently residing on Picton Main Street.
The statue has been the subject of much public debate and has also, in more recent months, been the subject of vandalism.
The purpose of the PEHAC meeting was to discuss the recommendations put forward by the working group, one being that the statue should be placed in storage for future consideration. The recommendation is part of a multi-faceted motion with its next stop being Shire Hall after the motion was finally passed after vigorous debate.
In speaking to his fellow committee members, Councillor Ernie Margetson amended the orginal motion slightly to accommodate any legal ramifications that could arise from removing the statue.
Margetson’s amendment noted council should acknowledge the recommendations by the working group while pursuing legal opinion on the temporary or permanent removal of the statue.
“PEHAC supports the assumption of the working group that the statue will be removed for storage for later consideration, and further consideration and public engagement will be undertaken for permanent removal no later than September 2022,” stated Margetson.
As Margetson noted, the motion also necessitates future art installations reaffirm the County’s commitment to anti-racist attitudes and to inclusiveness of marginalized peoples in its community.
The motion discussed also included greater effort to showcase Indigenous artwork, such as that from Tyendinaga.
The recommendation of the working group to place the statue in storage was arrived at by ranked, anonymous ballots after several months of deliberation, including presentations from academics, residents and Indigenous peoples.
Should the working group’s recommendation prove to be legally dubious, PEHAC will support their second most favoured outcome-to retain the statue in its current situation albeit with modifications to provide a broad historical context.
While the above motion was eventually passed, to be sent forward to council at their November 17th meeting, considerable discussion ensued ranging from PEHAC’s response to the working group’s decision to the need for civil discussion.
The discussion began with an incriminating deputation from resident and working group member Judith Burfoot.
In her deputation, Burfoot condemned certain members of PEHAC for making particular comments at their October 28th meeting stating those remarks were a “slap in the face” for the working group.
“The remarks by several PEHAC members were a slap in the face of the working group and seemed like an attempt to delegitimize the onerous work that the working group members have done,” she said. “Waiting until the process was concluded is disingenuous and smacks of a performative justification for changing the working group recommendation.”
Burfoot also contended that some members of PEHAC seem to live in an “echo chamber” wherein their biases are not acknowledged.
“The working group was tasked with making a recommendation on the Holding Court statue. We were a diverse group – in age, background, and ethnicity. The working group members included members from Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) communities, including from the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte,” she said. “This is in stark contrast to PEHAC and something that I did not hear a single PEHAC member so much as acknowledge. It was disheartening to see this profound bias in your committee be so blatantly ignored.”
Peter Lockyer, PEHAC member, noted the committee had a task before them “far beyond our usual work”.
“We appreciate the high degree of difficulty encountered by the working group in their challenging task,” said Lockyer. “This is a very emotionally charged, current discussion in many communities.”
Lockyer noted that the report from the working group could have contained more detailed analysis, specifically pinpointing the reasoning behind their decision.
He further stated that the report given to PEHAC by the working group did not provide a detailed analysis of community views. Like Burfoot, Lockyer emphasized it is important for any decision made to be done aside from biases.
“It is important that the findings of the Working Group and PEHAC – whatever we chose – are considered by all of the community as unbiased, fair, considered and helpful in unifying us in acknowledging the past, learning from it, and forging a new way forward in full consultation with Indigenous peoples and others with very practical, grassroots efforts that break down solitudes, build trust and respect, and serve as guidance as we forge a new relationship with all citizens,” said Lockyer.
He asserted that the majority of community respondents were in favour of keeping the statue.
“Your report to us does not contain a detailed analysis of community views that shaped your recommendations. PEHAC members have tried to sort through the data – and our initial analysis shows 59.1% of respondents wish to have the statue remain ‘as is’, remain with modifications such as more signage and interpretation, or re-located to another site. These results do not support your recommendation of removal,” added Lockyer.
Lockyer also questioned whether or not all public comments had been received, noting he had been contacted in recent days by several members of the public stating their feedback on the issue of the statue had not been posted on the municipal website.
“In the days since our last meeting, I have had several people contact me to say they don’t think their comments were posted, they didn’t hear back from staff about presenting a deputation, or participating as the community representative on the working group,” said Lockyer. “ And yet, here we are still receiving deputations at PEHAC.”
Of particular concern, stated Lockyer, was what he described as lack of transparency in the final decision process. In the end, he said, only four out of seven people voted for the recommendation put forth by the working group to move the statue into storage.
“So actually, four people made this decision on behalf of all the people who made online comments and deputations,” said Lockyer.
Echoing concerns about the process, Liz Driver, fellow committee member stated she was worried this process would bring PEHAC into disrepute.
Driver also put a motion on the floor, that was later retracted, emphasizing the need for PEHAC to strive for civility.
“PEHAC strongly condemns acts of vandalism, online bullying, harassment and other disrespectful actions that have characterized the current debate about the future of the Sir John A. Macdonald statue,” said Driver. “They do not encourage courteous, civil discussion or unite us in a collective, community effort to reconcile our shared past.”
Driver stated she put the motion forward due to the harassment experienced by a member of PEHAC, apparently due to their involvement with the working group.
“The reason it’s appropriate is because through all of PEHAC’s oversight of the work of the working group, one of our members was bullied and harassed,” stated Driver. “Having received the open letter from Judith Burfoot, I feel there’s a huge misunderstanding about people’s motivations here.”
In response to Driver’s motion, Margetson called a point of order, citing the motion as being one that “does not advance what we’re here to do today.”
“It deviates from the agenda and it’s not appropriate…I would never condone acts of vandalism or threats to any committee member. What I’m trying to do today is to move to the issue at hand, which is for PEHAC to make a recommendation to council regarding the working group’s position on Holding Court,” he added.
With all the dialogue and divergent opinions surrounding this issue, the fate of the statue has been anything but clear.
Though the amended recommendation of the working group was accepted by PEHAC, ensuring it will go before council and perhaps ensuring the swift exile of the statue from Main Street, the divisiveness of this issue continues to permeate the community.
On November 4th, the Macdonald Project-the local non-profit responsible for commissioning the statue in 2015-issued a statement. In it, they hearkened back to some of the concerns issued by members of PEHAC, both about the process involved with the working group’s decision and also with PEHAC’s ultimate adoption of their recommendation to remove Holding Court.
David Warrick, Chair of the Macdonald Project, brought forth a similar concern to that of Lockyer concerning the use of the municipality’s Have Your Say website to collect public opinion.
According to the press release, Warrick is concerned that the platforms used by Shire Hall staff to assess local public opinion did not support the working group’s recommendation to remove the art work.
In the same press release, Warrick also expressed concern that the views of Chief R. Donald Maracle were not mentioned.
“The views of Chief R. Donald Maracle of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, suggesting that we ‘not delete history, but add to it’ are not included in the report,” expressed Warrick.
Apart from all other concerns expressed in the Macdonald Project Press Release, is the spectre of legal repercussions for the municipality should they go forward with the working group’s recommendation.
“The Macdonald Project signed an agreement with the County in June 2015,” said Warrick. “We have sought a legal opinion and believe the municipality will be in violation of the agreement if they remove the artwork, place it in storage, or, as one member of the working group said in a meeting ‘take it to the dump’.”
Though it is still unclear how much longer Macondald will be holding court on Picton Main Street, the conversation surrounding his legacy continues to be as animated as ever.
To view the November 17th Prince Edward County Council meeting, in which this issue will be discussed, please visit their YouTube channel here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC-pC50bXg1pZOX0vajv5goQ.