This would not be a typical tourist stop, even though it was happening in one of the most historically and culturally significant parts of Atlantic Canada, and arguably, the entire country.
There we were, me and Cathy and five members of Cathy’s extended family, on a whirlwind sprint through Charlottetown before we caught the early-evening ferry back to northern Nova Scotia.
And there he was, sitting on a bench at the corner of Victoria Row and Queen Street, inviting city residents and visitors alike to drop by, take a cheesy photo, or have a little chat with Canada’s first Prime Minister.
The “little chats” have become far more serious these days.
On the other side of the country, Victoria City Council removed its own statue of Sir John A. Macdonald last month, on the advice of a council committee that also includes local aboriginal leaders and non-indigenous city residents. While the city replaced the statue with a plaque that pledged to “keep the public informed… as we find a way to recontextualize Macdonald in an appropriate way,” Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps recently wrote an opinion piece in a city newspaper that apologized for proceeding in a way that resulted in some residents feeling left out of the consultation process.
An Angus Reid poll released last week suggests that 70 per cent of respondents disagreed with the idea of removing Victoria’s Macdonald statue from public view, with only six per cent saying it should never be seen in public again. However, nearly-equal numbers – on either side of the political and cultural divide – agreed with options as diverse as putting the statue in a museum, transplanting it to another part of Victoria, or putting it back in its original position.
Back in Charlottetown, city officials say they have no plan to force our first PM off his bench on the corner of Victoria and Queen, and they haven’t received any requests to do so. Even a spokesman for the Native Council of Prince Edward Island, Jonathan Hamel, recently told CBC reporter Josh Lewis that removing the eight-year-old statue would be “diminishing” the bare facts, adding: “If we allow it to stay there, we can address it. We can say, ‘This was not right, we need to come together.’”
And so, on this sunny late-summer day, I find myself looking into the eyes of a man that I have come to admire since my high school years, and feeling conflicted, confused, even somewhat betrayed.
I feel like I wouldn’t want to have this conversation with Halifax founder Edward Cornwallis, whose controversial statue was removed from a city park last winter. My understanding of that man is shaped more by modern-day efforts to address his levying of a bounty on the scalps of mainland Nova Scotia’s Mi’kmaq residents, and has little to do with his role in launching what is now our provincial capital.
Macdonald is different. I have never known him as a villain, a fearmonger, a racist. I have only known him as the father of our country, the builder of our national railroad, the hero worthy of being portrayed by the likes of the enthusiastic curly-haired young man chatting with tourists just a block away from this casual-looking statue on a Charlottetown city corner.
During the constitutional crisis of the early ‘90s, as Quebec separatists came closer than ever to their dream of tearing Canada apart, I wrote a song that depicted a college-age Canadian – me – asking Macdonald to help make sense of the nation he led in its infancy. I didn’t know I was honouring a man who, in 1879, dismissed Canada’s indigenous people as “savages” that would only be of use to the nation by removing them from their parents and putting them “in central training industrial centres where they will acquire the habits and modes and thoughts of white men.”
Looking into his eyes today, I feel like I have failed myself and my fellow Canadians – especially my indigenous friends and neighbours – by not being more aware of this shameful part of our country’s history and not being willing to seek true reconciliation, even by means that might make me feel momentarily uncomfortable.
As I get up to end this surprisingly-sobering moment, however, I have the feeling that I need to once again have this conversation – not only with the bronzed figures of the past, but with those impacted by their decisions. To quote Thomas King’s 2012 book An Inconvenient Indian: “Perhaps it is unfair to judge the past by the present, but it is also necessary.”
So perhaps the solution isn’t to erase or whitewash our history, but to put its supposed “star players” on the bench – and give us the chance to confront them, and their actions, face-to-face.