The Macdonald Statue in Picton

January 6th, 2020.

Over the last 20 years, the History Lives Here team has focused our efforts on awakening area communities to the history that is all around us, and the importance of preserving this history before it is lost to Time. We've produced historical programming, organized anniversary events, and re-enactments, and develped walking tours and lectures.

We were also members of the Macdonald Project to create a sculpture of Sir John A. Macdonald on Picton’s Main Street in 2015, the 200th anniversary of his birth. The work was completed by one of Canada’s finest artists, Ruth Abernethy of the Kitchener area. The idea was to have a physical expression of this local history on Picton’s Main Street to create a sort of “history hub” by the Regent Theatre, our Carnegie Library, the Armoury and the nearby Royal Hotel through the telling of a little know historical fact: that John A. Macdonald once practiced law in Prince Edward County in the 1830s as a teenage lawyer, held his first court case here in October 1834, and became Canada’s first prime minister. The statue and accompanying signage make no editorial comments on the success or failure of Macdonald’s time in political office. The costs of the work were entirely covered through a grant from Heritage Canada, another from the Parrott Foundation of Belleville, and funds raised by the committee. A small reserve fund was left to the community to cover ongoing maintenance of the work.

The statue was recently re-installed at a new site in front of the Picton Library – and it has fuelled renewed discussion about whether we should have the statue or not.

Macdonald remains our most famous - or infamous - resident. Like many historical figures, he was an imperfect man living in imperfect times.  History is full of personalities, who remain a complex amalgam of contradictions, puzzling actions and mixed legacies.  American revolutionary hero, Gen. George Washington, the first U.S. President, successfully fought for the freedom of his countrymen, but was a slave owner who favoured expansion of America into territories occupied by First Nations in the Mid-West. He was certainly not a hero to the thousands of Loyalists forced to flee their homes during the American Revolution. And yet he is fundamental to the creation of the United States. Great men – and great women through history – often have great faults. They make momentous decisions based on limited knowledge, prevailing social views, the politics of their era - and they don’t always get it right.

Macdonald too has a complex history. Few Canadians knows the many tragedies of his personal life. And I cannot think of any other Canadian with such enduring news value. He died in June of 1891, but we are still talking about him. He remains important because we are still living with his legacy – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

If we remove the Macdonald statue and stop talking about him, we will not change history; but we will be missing an opportunity to learn more about this first Prime Minister, his policies, and his lasting impact on the country. Removing the statue is like burning books we don’t agree with. Let’s not take away history; let’s add to it using the statue as a learning resource. We can add more signage in partnership with First Nations to discuss the many implications of Macdonald’s policies. Over the next months, the Library is organizing a series of lectures from a First Nations’ perspective. My company has its summer walking tours and we always discuss his mixed legacy when we stop at the statue. We could do much more with the involvement of First Nations. There is a learning opportunity here to explore - and understand the complicated history we share.

The Macdonald statue sits in front of the Picton Library, which was once the centre of great community controversy when it opened in 1906. It was financed by a generous gift from American industrialist Andrew Carnegie through his foundation, which built over 2,500 libraries around the world. Some residents thought we should not take this funding, as it was “blood money” earned off the backs of workers in Carnegie’s railroads and steel companies.  Today, from the perspective of over a century later, I am happy we accepted the funding, and established our historic library, one of the few in Canada still used as a library, has some 9,000 members, and serves as an important cultural hub. This has been a lasting gift.

The federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission spent 6 years travelling across the country interviewing some 6,000 witnesses. It made over 90 recommendations in its 2015 report, and none of them included the need to take down monuments, or change street names. I think this was very wise, because when we take away history, we become divided at a time when we need to be united around creating a country that acknowledges the contributions of everyone and offers opportunity for all.  As the Commission noted, this process begins with honest, respectful dialogue. 

I am hopeful we will make the right decision at this moment in time. It’s critical that we do. I strongly support the development of public education programming developed in full partnership with First Nations that tells a complete history and engages us all in a new conversation about this country. We can’t change the past; but we can learn from it to shape the future.