Holding Court holds steady thanks to amended motion

BEFORE THE COURT OF PUBLIC INPUT- Rose Abernathy's Holding Court at the front of the Picton Library. (Desirée Decoste/Gazette Staff)



Holding Court will continue to ‘Hold Court’ on  Main Street for the foreseeable future.

After a lengthy special meeting Tuesday night, County council voted to allow the Sir John A. Macdonald Holding Court statue to remain on Picton’s Main Street while Council and staff work with professionals to develop next steps. 

At Tuesday’s Special Council Meeting, an amended motion was received that County “staff be directed to consult with legal advice, the Macdonald project group, the statue artist Ruth Abernathy, the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte and other Indigenous groups with ties to Prince Edward County, to develop meaningful respectful and historically accurate messaging to be added the Holding Court display.”

That motion was in direct opposition of a motion developed from the culturally diverse Macdonald working group that met over several months and forwarded a preferred option to move ‘Holding Court’ off Main Street and the Picton Library property by way of the Prince Edward Heritage Advisory Committee and into storage while a more suitable location found.

Mayor Ferguson noted leading up to the meeting, the process has allowed everyone to understand a great deal more about Macdonald, his history and local history.

“We joined several other municipalities going through the same conversations in Toronto, Montreal, Regina, Kitchener area, Charlottetown and Victoria, BC.,” Mayor Ferguson stated. “There has been a tremendous amount of respectful, courteous conversation about John A and the holding court statue.”

On the other side, he said, there has also been examples of verbal and physical vandalism committed, like the spilling of red paint early in the summer.

Prince Edward County Mayor Steve Ferguson. (Jason Parks/Gazette Staff)

Ferguson acknowledged the hard work the Macdonald Working Group as well as the Prince Edward Heritage Advisory Committee (PEHAC) has committed to this discussion as well as the significant contribution by staff members.

During the four-hour long virtual meeting, which featured 20 formal deputations and several community members’ perspectives, most individuals were in favour of keeping the JAM statue on Picton’s main street. 

Bruce Pardy, Professor of Law at Queen’s University, in his deputation to council touched on John A.’s place in Canadian history and critical race theory.

“You are in the unfortunate position of being cornered on this council. You have been forced to make a choice and to choose a side in what is essentially part of the culture wars. The fact of the matter is that Macdonald was one of the most enlightened, progressive men of his time and the key phrase in that sentence is: of his time. To evaluate Macdonald on the basis of modern sensibilities is to commit what one might call presentism,” he explained.

Pardy shared his opinion that this issue is not really about Macdonald at all, but about how people choose to acknowledge Canadian history.

“You’ll hear lots of opinions about Macdonald the man, but in my submission, Mr. Mayor, this is more about who gets to tell the story of this country. Macdonald is revered because he founded this nation and he is hated for exactly the same reason. So the choice you really have to make is between accepting the story that Canada is a racist, oppressive place or that it is one of those countries in the world that stands out as a place of freedom, democracy, equality, prosperity and progress – essentially a shining city on the hill where people from all over the world wish to come. Both things can’t be true,” Pardy stated.

The academic theory called critical race theory, Pardy went on, is a doctrine or agenda that states western nations are based upon an oppressive culture in which some groups are oppressed by others; in a situation where every relationship is based upon power.  

“In that narrative, white people are all racist and people who are not white, and especially Indigenous people in North America, are victims. If you are applauding that theory, it is inevitable that a man like MacDonald must be a villain,” he explained. “If you compare the histories of countries around the world, this country, largely because of as Macdonald, has a history as peaceful as one could imagine. If we want to condemn Macdonald with that kind of history, well then go ahead, but is that really the story we want to tell about our own country? Critical race theory makes this the era of the mob.”

As council moves forward on a decision, which Pardy called “unenviable,” he urged council members to recall the meaning of reconciliation.

“We are in an era of reconciliation apparently. That is what we are told. Reconciliation is starting to mean something that the word does not suggest. To reconcile means to bring two sides together; to reach a common understanding so you can move forward together. The meaning of the word is coming to apply to something quite different. It’s starting to mean that you must trash the history of the country and you must call the founders of the country villains,” he said. “In my view, proceeding that way with this project will result in exactly the opposite of what reconciliation is intended to mean.”

Pardy summed up his deputation by saying he hopes Council will honour Macdonald and keep the statue on Picton Main Street.

The bronze statue of Sir John A. Macdonald was targeted by unknown person (s) earlier this summer. (Change.org photo)

“The implications of making the choice is that the mob will rule, or it won’t, and I hope you will choose to honour and respect the man who made Canada possible and made it possible in a way which benefits everybody who lives in the country. He is the man who made peace, order and good government possible and made this kind of democratic debate happen,” Pardy said.

Coun. Roberts shared his agreement with Pardy, outlining the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the positive legacy it brings to Canadian culture. 

“If you are saying that legacy of Canada, of Macdonald regarding Canada, is a country that would fund a six-year, $70 million dollar study called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and that in the end, that commission would be a pretty brutal assessment of the past, and then apologize for that past, and begin a compensation program to address survivor issues, I think that’s pretty remarkable,” he said. 

Coun. Harper asked for Pardy’s opinion on the location of the JAM statue, posing whether or not location matters, keeping in mind that sufficient context around the statue be in place. 

Pardy’s response was that the statute remains where it is outside of Picton’s library building.

“I think much of this debate is symbolic and so my initial inclination is to think that if you should decide to move the statute, that it will communicate agreement with the objections that people have expressed in having the statue where it is,” he said. 

Mayor Leo Finnegan, who served two terms between 2003 and 2010 in Prince Edward County, also made a deputation that the statue belongs where it is. 

During Finnegan’s last year in office, he and his wife, Maureen, attended a gathering where Mr. David Warrick and others introduced them to the idea of a statue honouring the first Prime Minister, by the well-known sculptor, Ruth Abernathy, he said. 

“The assembled group were very favourable to the proposal. July 1, 2015 was a beautiful summer day in Picton. Part of the main street was blocked off and a large, happy crowd assembled for the unveiling of a statue of Sir. John A Holding Court,” he recalled. 

Finnegan then began reading more about John A., noting that he lived in Picton for around 11 years and defended himself at the Union Street courthouse. Finnegan also noted MacDonald’s 18-year tenure as Prime Minister and his lead on bringing the Canadian Pacific railroad across the country. 

“He was largely responsible for bringing the provinces together and if not for his efforts, the western part of Canada may have become part of the United States. Yes, somethings happened during his time, such as residential schools, but he was not alone. From what I have read he worked at trying to improve conditions for the First Nation people. The Council of 2010 to 2014 whole-heartedly agreed to the erection of a statue on our main street honouring Sir John A. After consultation with many community groups, who for the most part were in favour, a contract was signed. Thousands of dollars were raised and spent to make this project a reality,” he recalled. “I urge you as a council to leave the statue on the main street and perhaps have information posted as to the positive and negatives of our first Prime Minister. This our history. Let’s leave it alone.”

Shannon Helm, local educator and mother of two young Indigenous daughters, helped create the Have Your Say platform which allowed County residents to express their feelings regarding the statue. She shared a deeply moving deputation outlining her reasoning for the JAM statue removal and the personal hardships she’s felt by this public display.

“One day when Claire was in grade 4 and attending the after-school club at the library, we walked together past the statue of JAM at the Armoury. She turned and asked me if I thought that he would want to kill her too. This question still haunts me,” she shared. “I am very grateful that she gave voice to her thoughts, that we were able to discuss it. It was a wakeup call to me as a white parent of Indigenous girls to be more aware of the public messages that are silently speaking to my children in our community. Shortly after the statue was removed for cleaning and storage. The following fall the library began hosting its speaker’s series and it felt to me that it would stay in storage. However, instead it was reinstalled at the library.”

Councillor Kate MacNaughton. (Jason Parks/Gazette Staff)

That spring, Helm wrote a petition asking for the statue to be removed and put in storage until a proper public consultation could be done. Once the MacDonald Working Group conducted public surveys, Helm said she impressed to learn that in this 95 per cent white community, 50 per cent of those who wrote in Have Your Say wished the statue would be removed. She then organized a local art show in downtown Picton during the month of October, where local business windows were flooded with “beautiful and thoughtful, disturbing and truthful” art displays, she explained.

“It is my understanding that public art is meant to be a celebration of shared values. I think that the numbers show that the values that this statue stand for are not shared by the community as a whole. For me, the statue of JAM is not only a celebration of a man who legislated genocide, through the residential school system (and to be clear, he didn’t invent residential schools, he legislated them), the clearing of the plains through the formation of the NWMP (now known as the RCMP) and his policies of starvation, the hanging of Indigenous leaders, the banning of the potlatch, and the implementation of the pass system; this statue is also, for me, a symbol of colonialism, the patriarchy, and white supremacy. I personally do not share any of these values. I doubt anyone in this meeting would admit to sharing these values,” she said.

After apologizing for not always modelling attentive listening or understanding to this issue in the past, Coun. MacNaughton asked Helm moving forward, how best to listen. 

“I think it starts with humility,” Helm responded. “People here don’t speak on residential schools, they don’t ever. In all the years I’ve been here, I’ve had maybe 5 conversations because they don’t want their children to know that happened to them. They don’t want those things known. They don’t want that to be passed on to their kids, If I were to put a statue up, it would be a of a resilient Indigenous person, not of anything negative, because all those negative feelings – those images – they play powerfully on people.”

Helm finished by saying the removal of this statue brings a feeling of reconciliation to her, but that it is only a baby step towards true reconciliation; a gesture that speaks loudly that all are welcome here and safe in community spaces. 

Paul Allen spoke of his career in children’s mental health and advised County Council to remove the statue for due consideration. 

“I have witnessed the devasting effects of inter-generational trauma in many Indigenous families. I did my best to help in communities across Ontario and in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Labrador and Nunavut. I’m here to tell you that Macdonald’s legacy still runs deep in the lives of Indigenous people. A year ago, five of us asked council to defer reinstalling holding court on Picton Main Street until the public had been given a chance to share their thoughts about the statue. Instead less than a month later, council reinstalled Holding Court unceremoniously in front of the Picton library. Anticipating criticism of the move, the Mayor promised to seek public feedback on the statue early in the new year,” Allen explained.

Public consultation only became a priority to council, he stated, with the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests in June and July. 

“These included calls for removing statues of Confederate traitors in America, slave traders in Europe, and John A. Macdonald in Canada. Which brings us to this tonight.”

Allen referenced Dr. Sean Carlton, a History and Native Studies professor, who Allen said was the only professional historian to make a deputation to the MacDonald Working Group or the PEHAC.

“Dr. Carleton emphasized four points that council should take account of tonight. First, Macdonald committed genocide against Indigenous people. Second, statues are not history; they are celebrations of people we are meant to admire and emulate. Third, we can remove statues without erasing history. And finally, while Canadians might see Macdonald as a nation-builder, Indigenous people see him as a nation-destroyer,” he said. “An architect of genocide against indigenous people, – like Macdonald – is an unsuitable person to be celebrated uncritically in our public spaces, especially when the major project defining Canada today is truth and reconciliation.”

Allen explained that in since public consultation began, the Macdonald project has used local media to drive home a simple message: “Removing statues means erasing history”

“Yet over the course of 3 months, the Macdonald project didn’t muster a single professional historian who endorsed their message. Perhaps it’s not surprising when you consider that two years ago, members of the Canadian Historical Association voted 121 to 11, 92 per cent, to strip Macdonald’s name. These men and women are not a mob, they don’t hate Canada, they don’t even hate Macdonald, and their opinion and their intellect are not crippled or corrupted by social media,” he explained. “Most of us who have done research know that MacDonald should not be honoured uniquely in this way. We have to balance out his accomplishments with the deeds that have undermined his reputation. When Don Maracle, Chief of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, spoke to the working group in August, he also wasn’t buying the Macdonald’s projects argument. The chief was emphatic. The other thing I want to be clear about is that the statue to us is just an object. Getting rid of a statue; an object, is not going to erase history, or erase the harm or the impact that is still lasting today. The decisions that were taken by MacDonald.”

Allen said many County residents are ashamed of Macdonald’s genocide against Indigenous people and have said so unequivocally and without mixed emotions. The working group considered their views and the different views of many other county residents, he continued, and voted to recommend that holding court be removed to storage for later consideration.

After hearing several comments from members of the community, Coun. St Jean expressed his discomfort with the original motion, and offered a proposed amendment, which was passed. 

Of council, Coun. Margetson and Coun. MacNaughton were the only two who supported the removal of the statue, and touched on the detriment it causes by remaining on the main street.  

The motion by  a 12-2 vote, passed an amended motion stating the following:

John A. MacDonald Holding Court statue remain in its current location, that staff be directed to consult with legal advice, the MacDonald project group, the artist Ruth Abernathy, the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte and other Indigenous groups with ties to Prince Edward County, to develop meaningful respectful and historically accurate messaging to be added the Holding Court display on Picton’s main street to encourage public discussion and education, adhering to the guiding principles of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations, that staff be directed to develop a public art policy in consultation with the Prince Edward County Arts council, and the policy be presented to council at a Committee of the Whole meeting no later than Sept. 30, 2021.