Actions and Commitments

Call to Action # 68: Museums and Archives (67-70)

A national historic site reopens with a new look at John A. Macdonald’s legacy

June 19, 2024

CATHERINE DAWSON MARCH

Bellevue House National Historic site in Kingston, Ont., which was once the home of Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald.SUPPLIED

The Globe and Mail: The hard truths are hard to avoid now at Bellevue House.

The National Historic Site was once home to Sir John A. Macdonald, once unabashedly celebrated as Canada’s first prime minister. This May, after a six-year shuttering, Bellevue House reopened with an entirely new take on this Father of Confederation. Exhibits detailing his ruinous legacy on Indigenous and Chinese Canadians sit side by side with artefacts and plaques that note his political wins and social status.

The Italianate mansion, built in 1841 in a leafy suburb of Kingston, Ont., was shuttered in 2018 for major structural repairs (though the visitor centre and grounds remained open). The closing ended up being fortuitous.

In the aftermath of the confirmation, in 2021, of hundreds of unmarked graves discovered on the grounds of Canada’s residential schools, the city of Kingston was forced to reckon with how to present its once favourite son. “We needed to address the elephant in the room,” Hugh Ostrun, Superintendent of National Historic Sites in Eastern and Central Ontario, says. Concerned Parks Canada staff realized it was time to do more than just fix the roof and wiring. The pandemic gave them time to take stock.

“All of these major events in Canada delayed our work but gave us more insight into the things we needed to do here.”

The visitor centre on the 4.2 acre site already had panels and storytelling that detailed a comprehensive history of Macdonald’s government but staff wanted to change the visitor experience throughout the mansion and gardens. To create the new exhibits and guided programming, Parks Canada worked with several advisory groups, including Indigenous members from Kingston and the Mohawk Bay of Quinte, as well as locals from the Kingston Historical Society and the city’s Heritage Tourism groups.

Visitors reach the mansion, which Macdonald and his family only lived in for 13 months, by taking a meandering garden path. Newly worded plaques set the tone early – one features quotes from past visitors with their varied impressions about the man – everything from “He was a monster” to “We wouldn’t have Canada without him.”

Bellevue House is reopening with completely revamped exhibits about Macdonald’s legacy and life.SUPPLIED

“People come with different viewpoints, different opinions, different feelings,” Tamara van Dyke, Bellevue’s Visitor Experience Manager, says. “We can’t tell them how to feel about this history. But we can help them to understand this history … we share facts, non-biased facts.”

Walk through the home’s wide wooden front door into an era of Victorian splendour, including elaborate table settings and stunning 1840s-style wallpaper; keen observers will notice several whiskey decanters placed throughout the home. On this first floor, though, books about the Indigenous art on the property now sit next to Victorian samplers and framed prints. A sidetable holds a bowl with sage, sweetgrass, tobacco and cedar – four sacred medicines that some visitors might need to help them through exhibits noting Macdonald’s more difficult history.

Move upstairs and the mood changes – now the rooms pair Macdonald the man, the nation builder, the husband and father, with the leader who implemented the Chinese head tax, the residential school system and many other destructive policies that led to cultural decimation among Indigenous people.

One of Bellevue’s most impactful rooms is the nursery. The family’s sturdy wooden cradle – a piece that looks like it came out of a Grimms’ fairy tale – stands near an Indigenous child carrier and tiny moccasins, and on the other side of the room, a wooden school desk frames a nine-minute video full of powerful photos and interviews with residential school survivors. On the wall above that desk are Macdonald’s strong, scalding words about why he felt the schools were necessary.

In the primary bedroom, a TV is placed above the four-poster bed. Press a button and elders explain Haudenosaunee teachings.CATHERINE DAWSON MARCH/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

A few steps down the hall is the primary bedroom with a grand four-poster bed, fine furniture and voluminous drapery highlighting bay-window views of Lake Ontario – but the room is more memorable for the TV screen placed over the head of the bed. Press a button and Mohawk elders explain Haudenosaunee teachings and how the best way to do better in the future is to teach what happened in the past. The juxtaposition is jarring and meant to be.

In another room, examples of Macdonald’s snappy dress are modelled next to an exhibit about 10-year-old Anishinaabe Isabella Kulak, scolded in 2020 for wearing a ribbon skirt to her school’s formal day. In the hallway, the haunting voice of elder Barbara Hooper and several other local Indigenous women is heard as they chant and call children back to safety.

Aarin Crawford is a local from Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nation, and worked at Bellevue House in the early 2000s in an administrative capacity and as an interpretive guide. She recalls the tours back then: “it was very much celebratory – Macdonald was the hero, the nation builder.” Her mother was proud she worked for Parks Canada but also made sure she understood the former prime minister’s dark history that she wasn’t reciting at work.

Crawford says it was hard when her Indigenous friends asked her why she worked at the site, and she eventually moved on to other jobs at Parks Canada.

The grounds at Bellevue House contain a large kitchen garden. This summer, staff have also planted an Indigenous healing garden.PARKS CANADA/SUPPLIED

In 2020, she returned to work as Indigenous Liaison at Bellevue House because of the changes being made. “It’s emotional for me … When I was going through the interview process for this job, I prayed to Creator and said, ‘If I get this job I will do my best to bring those voices forward.’”

She was thrilled to work with Isabella Kulak’s family, and the room that showcases her ribbon skirt story is one of her favourite exhibits. “She’s a bright young woman with a huge future in front of her; to be alongside Macdonald – that’s a big thing for an Indigenous child and for the parents of that child.”

On a recent June day the forested, sundappled grounds surrounding Bellevue House were peaceful. Parks Canada’s popular red Adirondack chairs overlook a large kitchen garden just starting to grow. But another, smaller plot has just been dug between the visitor centre and the mansion. Here, sage, sweetgrass, cedar and tobacco are planted. Staff are hoping this Indigenous healing garden blooms as the visitation picks up for the summer season.

If you go

Bellevue House National Historic Site, 35 Centre St, a five minute drive east of Kingston, Ontario’s downtown. Adults $9, youth under 18 are free; specialized guided programs of the house and grounds run between $7.50 and $25. parks.canada.ca/lhn-nhs/on/bellevue

The writer travelled to Kingston as a guest of Parks Canada. It did not review or approve the story.