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What should Queen’s Park do with its statue of John A. Macdonald?

January 14, 2023

An 1894 statue of the country’s founding prime minister has been boarded up since 2020 following several incidents of vandalism.

Toronto Star:What to do with Sir John A. Macdonald?

An 1894 statue of the country’s founding prime minister that towers over the top of University Avenue on the grounds of the legislature has been boarded up since 2020 following several incidents of vandalism.

Dozens of small shoes lay it its feet in silent protest over the unmarked graves of Indigenous children at residential schools and Macdonald’s role in creating an education system likened to apartheid and genocide.

Macdonald himself is covered by a tarpaulin — a double layer of protective custody — oblivious to the controversy that has eclipsed his reputation for uniting Canada’s disparate regions and religions into a confederation. Raw feelings, refuelled by Thursday’s discovery of more potential unmarked graves at a former residential school in Saskatchewan, make it difficult to decide the statue’s future.

If there is one.

“We have to understand we are trying to find the remains of our children,” says New Democrat Sol Mamakwa, who represents the remote riding of Kiiwetinoong in northwestern Ontario and is the province’s lone Indigenous MPP.  “If they open up the statue it’s going to cause a lot of grief. It’s going to open up a clash of histories and we don’t want to see that.”

It’s not just residential schools, Mamakwa adds in an interview from Sioux Lookout, citing the legacies of colonialism that include persistent boil water advisories in Indigenous communities that would never be tolerated in other communities. 

Macdonald’s government initiated residential schools in 1883. The last one closed in 1996. About 150,000 Indigenous children were removed from their homes and forced to attend. Thousands never made it back to their parents as a result of heartbreaking and horrible mistreatment. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission initially counted 3,201 deaths at residential schools in a 2015 report. 

The search for unmarked graves, including sites in Ontario, will take years. 

Some suggest tearing the statue down, moving it into storage, leaving it in place with a plaque on residential schools, putting it in a museum where Macdonald’s legacy — good and bad — can be more fully explained and explored, or adding a residential schools monument.

The speaker, Ted Arnott, who has jurisdiction over the grounds, asked several MPPs to consider the matter during Premier Doug Ford’s first term. No decisions were made. 

Now the task has been handed to the legislature’s little-known but influential Board of Internal Economy, comprised of Arnott, Progressive Conservative government house leader Paul Calandra and New Democrat MPP John Vanthof. The Liberals and Greens are not on the board because they do not have official party status. Arnott is the chair but does not have a vote. 

“It hasn’t come across our plate at all,” says Vanthof (Temiskaming). “But the shoes remind all of us the issues are still there.”

The Ford government is not tipping its hand on the fate of the statue, which is the property of the Archives of Ontario. “We won’t have any comment while the matter is before the board,” says Owen Macri, spokesperson for Calandra. 

Sources say it can cost as much as $10,000 to clean and restore the statue every time it’s vandalized with paint. 

Mamakwa says he is aware of “pressure” on Arnott to open the monument but a historian at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson) says it would be wiser to wait “until the dust settles,” for fears the statue would be quickly damaged or toppled.  “It could take a generation,” warns professor Patrice Dutil, who maintains Canadians should consider Macdonald in a broad context. 

“That’s the very essence of historical intelligence,” he says “I don’t want to sound cruel or insensitive. I know terrible, terrible things happened in those schools” which were often run by churches. “To bring it all down to John A. Macdonald is absurd,” Dutil adds. “For all the bad press he has had for the last seven or eight years, he accomplished a great deal.”

But advocates for removing the statue or keeping it boxed up say Macdonald’s own words in the House of Commons in 1883 point to the reason.

“When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages, he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write,” the prime minister told MPs. “Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of white men.”

Author Tanya Talaga, a former Toronto Star Queen’s Park reporter, used that Macdonald quote in her award-winning book Seven Fallen Feathers. “He should not be revered or celebrated,” says Talaga, suggesting a detailed sign explaining why the statue is covered. “Tell the truth about Canada and its founders.”

Chief Stacey Laforme of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, on whose vast territory the statue rests, says he initially felt the taking down of Macdonald statues that began several years ago was “short-sighted.” That changed with the growing revelations of unmarked graves at former residential schools. 

“The pulling down of the statues became an absolute and must become part of a healing journey for a lot of people,” says Laforme, noting he has not been consulted by Queen’s Park about the statue. “We’re still all raw from uncovering all the pain. And when I say that, I don’t just mean Indigenous people … that was a real kick in the stomach to a lot of Canadians.”

Former speaker of the legislature Dave Levac, who has Métis heritage, says the challenge in deciding the fate of the Macdonald statue is to find a solution “that addresses the conflict but doesn’t create a bigger problem.”

But the former Brantford Liberal MPP urges concrete action, soon — perhaps by building an Indigenous monument at Queen’s Park. 

“Kicking the can down the road is not an option,” says Levac.

Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser reinforces that thought while Green Leader Mike Schreiner says it’s time to consult with “those who have been harmed by the legacy of Sir John A. McDonald” on the next move.  “It’s taking a long time to figure out what to do” Fraser says. “We all know what’s under the boards. The boards don’t hide the truth. We should just get at the truth.”

In the meantime, the wooden hoarding around the statue is painted the colour of stone. If those passing by on the way to or from the Queen’s Park subway station didn’t know Macdonald looms behind a padlocked access door, there is no way to tell except for a footnote on a nearby map of the grounds. 

Several times daily, people stop — some briefly and others for several minutes — contemplating the tiny footwear.  “Though we cannot change the history we have inherited, we can shape the history we wish to leave behind,” reads a small sign on the hoarding.

“The Speaker of the Legislative Assembly is considering how the depictions of those histories in the monuments and statuary on the Assembly’s grounds can respect all of our diverse cultures and people.

Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1