The municipal working group currently grappling with the fate of the ‘Holding Court’ statue featuring Sir John A Macdonald recently received a deputation from Sean Carleton, Professor of History and Native Studies at the University of Manitoba. Carleton argued that the statue should either be removed or, at the very least, should not remain in its current state.
One particularly relevant course taught by Carleton is called “Inventing Canada” which reportedly invites students to learn more about the contested nature of commemoration practices, such as erecting statues and monuments.
Carleton emphasized that for the community to be genuinely committed to the principles of truth and reconciliation, history needs to be used in such a way as to bring together Indigenous and Non Indigenous peoples.
“I think reconsidering the statue of John A is quite an easy way to symbolize the County’s commitment to that work,” he said.
Speaking to the truth aspect of truth and reconciliation, Carleton asserted there can be no reconciliation without a critical assessment of the past.
“Truth proceeds reconciliation,” he said. “The truth about Macdonald is his legacy is more complicated than most commemorations can convey, in particular, the ‘Holding Court’ statue.”
With regard to Macdonald’s complicated legacy, Carleton stated there’s much more to the picture than what is taught at public schools. And, while Macdonald is a nation builder, he is also a nation destroyer, being the main proponent of colonization.
Despite his paradoxical past, Macdonald is more often than not lauded for being the Father of Confederation-a half truth that is perpetuated with commemorations and statues such as that gracing Picton Main Street.
“Most commemorations uncritically celebrate Macdonald and thereby, consciously or unconsciously, reinforce the colonial story of how Canada began with European settlement and became a nation, giving Macdonald the lead role in that story,” Carleton explained.
For all the mythologizing of the man, Carleton argued that Macdonald was complicated to say the least. He was the instigator of the transcontinental railway, which was key to growing Canada’s economy, but also the instigator of what has been deemed by the United Nations to be genocide of Indigenous peoples.
In his talk, he also deflated the common sentiment that “without Macdonald there would be no Canada”.
“The formulation of ‘no Macdonald, no Canada’ is a historical formulation that is part of the mythologizing that clouds Canadian’s understanding of the complicated nature of confederation as a political process,” he stated.
Part of this mythologizing, Carelton added, is a deliberate attempt to make Canadians feel proud.
Carleton detailed some of Macdonald’s perhaps lesser known acts, such as creating the reserve and the pass system, thereby clearing land in the west to benefit from resources.
“He supported the creation of the reserve system, forcing Indigenous peoples onto reserves to clear the way for the railway and forcing their containment on those reserves by supporting the operation of the pass system,” said Carleton. “This existed outside the law, whereby Indigenous people were required to obtain a pass form the local Indian Agent to leave the reserve.”
Carleton also touched on Macdonald’s involvement with the Northwest Rebellion of 1885, and subsequent capture and execution of many rebellion leaders, such as Louis Riel.
He noted that the legal proceedings involving this case were dubious at best, rendering the celebration of Macdonald’s legal career, as portrayed in ‘Holding Court’, problematic.
Apart from the outright extermination of Indigenous peoples, Macdonald used the Indian Act to criminalize cultural events such as pow wows and potlatches. This would last until well into the 20th century, Carleton stated.
As Prime Minister, Carleton argued Macdonald had control over government policies.
“The portfolio he chose for himself was Indian Affairs,” explained Carleton. “He was the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs so he could oversee colonization of the west to support nation building.”
As Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, Macdonald was also responsible for marshalling the resources necessary to bring Indian Residential Schools into being-another tool of genocide that lasted until 1996, he added.
He also noted that statues of Macdonald were not popular until the 1960s and 1970s, when Canada was looking for a unifying figure to commemorate and then again around the bicentennial of Macdonald’s birth, which gave rise to the statue in Picton.
The problem with venerating figures such as Macdonald is that doing so neglects a large part of history.
“Macdonald was a Father of Confederation and a nation builder, and that is an important distinction that needs to be taught to Canadian’s, but he was also an architect of Indigenous People’s genocide in order to build that nation,”said Carelton.
Ultimately, in the era of truth and reconciliation, Carelton urged the working group to find more relevant and creative ways to acknowledge Macdonald, ways that do not uncritically celebrate a man responsible for the genocide and repression of Indigenous Peoples.
With more questions than answers as to the fate of ‘Holding Court’, some have suggested the statue would be better suited in a local museum.
Sandra Latchford spoke on behalf of the Museum Advisory Committee (MAC). Not mincing words, she stated that placing the statue on the grounds of MacAulay Heritage Park, the only museum in Picton, would not be appropriate or possible.
“The MAC does not support relocating Holding Court to anywhere on the grounds of MacAulay Heritage Park or within MacAulay Museum, as the statue does not fit with any curatorial criteria that would connect the statue to the site or to the mandate for the museum,” stated Latchford.
She further added that placing the statue there would detract from the relationship between the heritage buildings and the grounds and would require significantly increased security.
“The collection of the museum itself, situated in the church, tells a broader story of our local history,” explained Latchford. “This building additionally serves as a storage facility and event space and the site of most programming attached to the MacAulay Heritage Park.”
Latchford commented that, given the limited space on site, situating the statue inside the museum would not allow for a broader interpretation of Macdonald’s history and would also detract from other exhibits.
Meanwhile, public consultation regarding the fate of the statue remains open until October 2. Anyone can submit their opinions on this topic via Have Your Say: https://haveyoursay.thecounty.ca/sir-john-a-macdonald-truth-and-reconciliation.