Holding Court is a monument to cultural genocide

In 2010, a small group in Prince Edward County conceived The Macdonald Project to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of Sir John A. Macdonald’s birth, in 2015. The Project’s centrepiece was Holding Court – a bronze statue commemorating the nineteen year old Macdonald’s first trial before a judge and jury in the Picton Courthouse in October 1834.

In 2010, many Canadians were unaware of Macdonald’s culpability for a campaign of cultural genocide waged against Indigenous peoples. So, the Project might be excused initially for its decision to honour this man.

By 2015, however, Macdonald’s legacy was becoming more fully known, thanks to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and studies like James Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains: Disease, politics of starvation, and the loss of Aboriginal life.

By June and July 2015, Commentary and Letters to the Editor in The Picton Gazette were already speaking of the long road ahead for Canadians who wished “to make amends … after such betrayals” and suggesting that the meaning and implications of installing a statue of Macdonald Holding Court on Picton Main Street needed to be considered in a broader historical context.

The Project’s answers to these concerns in 2015 amounted to minimizing the underlying issues and denying outright the most serious allegation against Macdonald: that he was personally responsible for designing and waging a campaign of cultural genocide against Indigenous peoples.

First, The Macdonald Project arranged for the unveiling of Holding Court‘ to include one speaker’s acknowledging that Macdonald’s Canada was far from perfect:

… Now, we know today – and we are painfully aware of this – that our 1867 Constitution was far from perfect. And, in particular, we realize, that from our founding to the present day, we have failed to accord our Aboriginal brothers and sisters the place and the respect they deserve as First Canadians. (Applause) Some of the things said by Sir John A., and some of the things he did, are certainly part of that problem. But, as a wise judge has said, “It is the nature of injustice, that we may not always see it in our times.” Today, we acknowledge past wrongs, but our focus must be that the positive side of Sir John A. Macdonald’s constitutional vision becomes a reality for us all.

Excerpt from a recording of the remarks of Justice Sharpe, beginning at about 00:10:33.

Sharpe’s admission that Indigenous peoples have not been accorded “the place and the respect they deserve” skirted the issue of Macdonald’s cultural genocide entirely. We also cringe to hear First Nations called “First Canadians” and resent being told that we – including Indigenous peoples, presumably – need to focus less on past injustice and more on “the positive side of Sir John A. Macdonald’s constitutional vision.” Through Sharpe’s remarks, the Project clearly aligned itself with what’s known as the “Indians should just get over it” point of view.

And yet, let’s credit the Project for saying at least something about the controversy surrounding Macdonald at the unveiling of Holding Court. In contrast, a recording of the ceremony shows that no one from the municipal government – neither Mayor Robert Quaiff nor any other elected official who was present, including then-Councillor and Chair of the County’s Historical Society, Steve Ferguson – made any effort to acknowledge Macdonald’s “past wrongs” that day.

For denying the most serious charge against Macdonald – that he had committed cultural genocide against Indigenous peoples – The Macdonald Project turned to its good friend, Toronto Star columnist and amateur historian, Richard Gwyn. During a promotional tour in November 2011 for his latest book Nation-Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times, Gwyn had made a number of public appearances in Picton and had become an early celebrity-supporter of The Macdonald Project.

In promoting sales of his book, Gwyn was earning a reputation as Macdonald’s fiercest apologist. One time, Macdonald ‘s critic was simply another paid opinion-writer, like Gwyn himself:

Another time, Macdonald’s critic was the Chief Justice of Canada’s Supreme Court:

Gwyn’s perspective on Macdonald is especially relevant to understanding the thinking and underlying values of The Macdonald Project – in 2015 and up to the present.

First, The Macdonald Project’s website (under Education) still links to Gwyn’s defense of Macdonald, including his patronizing dismissal of Chief Justice McLachlin and her acceptance of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s conclusion that Macdonald was guilty of cultural genocide against Indigenous peoples.

Second, Ruth Abernathy – the artist whom The Macdonald Project commissioned to sculpt “Holding Court” – credits Gwyn for most all of whatever understanding of Macdonald she brought to the work:

Author Richard Gwyn produced an illuminating two-volume biography on John A. Macdonald just prior to my sculpting of John A.’s distinctive face. I declared to Richard that, true to Canadian politics, his books “were so boring I couldn’t put them down!” They were ideal background reading …

I began carving young Macdonald despite inflamed public discourse about the upcoming “birthday boy”.

In classic Canadian fashion, celebrating an elected leader was unduly difficult. Macdonald’s nineteenth-century choices were not deemed politically correct today and the contemporary press seemed to focus on the historic “errors”. There was little mention of his nineteenth-century accomplishments, yet Macdonald’s continual re-election suggested that his ideas were shared and supported by the electorate. …

I’d learned a great deal about Macdonald through Holding Court, and even more about the complexities of celebrating Canada’s elected leaders.

Ruth Abernathy, Life and bronze: A sculptor’s journal (2017), pp. 107 – 111.

Abernathy shares not only Gwyn’s perspective on Macdonald, but his bemusement at all the fuss about Macdonald as well. In fact, she confidently predicts that the “often vitriolic public discourse over John A.’s habits and his nineteenth-century decisions” will soon be as “difficult to comprehend [as] aggravation across the nation over that red maple leaf [flag] that we now wholeheartedly embrace.” [p. 177]

In considering what’s to be done with Holding Court now, it’s fair for us to take account of the initial and continuing motivations and sentiments of its originators. It’s also fair for us to ask the Mayor and Members of Council to share their thoughts and feelings about Holding Court. Their predecessors were silent in 2015 – a repeat performance isn’t good enough.

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