Over the next weeks, a small group of County residents will be considering the future of the Sir John A. Macdonald statue on Picton’s Main Street. It’s a daunting task.
I am a member of the Prince Edward Heritage Advisory Committee, the group mandated with leading these discussions, although I am not, at my own request, a member of the newly-formed working group. I was also a member of the Macdonald Project. And for the last 20 years, my company associates and I have worked to transform the hidden history of the County into popular history products like walking tours, plays, re-enactments, anniversary events, and our History Moments series, which plays before movies at The Regent Theatre. Our goal has been to showcase the history that is all around us. We strongly believe if we know more about our past, we can shape a better future.
We are now beginning a difficult, and long overdue discussion in our community about racism. My hope is the working group will listen to – and learn from – each other as they wrestle with the complicated history we have inherited and share. I hope, as well, they chart a path forward based on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report and in close consultation with First Nations. We need the best of each other at this time – not the worst.
We have a clear choice. We can blame all our problems on John A., an imperfect man who lived in imperfect times who died in 1891. We can call each other names, endlessly argue about selected, historical factoids to confirm the absolute certainty of our views; we can vandalize the statue and rationalize the act as justifiable. Or, we can select another path based on the long tradition in this country of civil, respectful discussion, and debate exploring imaginative solutions.
I have been a journalist all my life. I don’t believe there are absolute truths. Instead, I believe there are many truths. And we are still discovering new insights through ongoing research into past civilizations like the Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians. History isn’t a static entity. It evolves.
In another life, I got to travel to lots of places where there is no right to debate, to dissent or protest – distant places like the home of the Urighur people, a Muslim culture living on the edges of the Taklamakan Desert in southwestern China. Life there is short, hard, unspeakably difficult, and dangerous. Despite all their hardships, the Uighur people gave me a great gift. They taught me to be thankful. I carry that with me. It helps me remain an optimist when it is sometimes hard to be.
I am cheered by ideas already emerging even before the working group begins its deliberations – adding more signage to the existing art work to provide greater context to Macdonald’s complex legacy; the possibility of new art work created by First Nations artists depicting an alternative perspective of the past to rest alongside the Macdonald statue; establishment of a First Nations interpretative presence in Carrying Place where a Historic Sites of Canada cairn commemorates the signing of The Gunshot Treaty in the 1780s. You’d be taking your life in your hands to visit the cairn now. It’s more hidden history. But, it is also living history that still impacts the everyday lives of First Nations. Councillor Bill Roberts has suggested we return Foresters Island near Tyendinaga to The Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte. And we could encourage more educational initiatives like the Picton Library’s lecture series featuring First Nation speakers. We have this extraordinary moment in time. We can be fearless in learning from the past – all of it, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
We can forge a better way forward. We can nourish an unshakeable belief in each other. If we can do that, we will make history.