Here’s my 2 cents worth regarding the controversy over the Prime Ministers statues project in Baden. I’m writing here as someone who was outspokenly critical of the project when it was initially proposed for Victoria Park in Kitchener, but not for the reasons being raised today. I just thought it was tacky, derivative and unCanadian.
A shorter version of the text below was published in the New Hamburg Independent on July 22, 2020. Later that day, Wilmot council decided to move the controversial Sir John A. Macdonald statue from its current place, and to postpone any additional statues from being installed until next March at the the soonest.
Let’s shoulder the burden
and leave Sir John A. where he lies
The Prime Ministers statues project in Baden is dividing the community at a time when we should be coming together to get ready for the challenges ahead.
It is getting difficult to imagine a happy outcome. Suspending the project indefinitely, or curtailing it by removing the historical figure at the centre of the controversy, would in effect be killing it. A Prime Ministers Walk without Canada’s first political leader, the man who, more than any comparable figure, built this country, wouldn’t make any sense.
I have no interest in exonerating or condemning Sir John A.Macdonald. He left this mortal coil 129 years ago, and is therefore no longer capable of guilt, shame or remorse. He can never be any wiser, more compassionate, or more just than he was when he was alive; he cannot make amends, seek reconciliation, or serve the truth.
It is Canada itself that is on trial here. Sir John A. and his contemporaries set us on a road to tragedy. And it is we, the living, who remain capable of honouring truth and working towards justice.
We know better now, and from that we can take comfort, build hope and gather courage. Because we know better, and because we are alive, the responsibility for setting things right falls squarely on our shoulders.
Can the statues project be set on a more promising course? I’m wondering if something along these lines would be acceptable, to the project leaders and to those who want to destroy their work:
— Change the name from Prime Ministers Path to something like “outdoor museum” or “history garden.”
— Take steps to ensure that each visitor arrives by choice, and not by stumbling upon the installation.
— Minimize ties with the municipality.
— Shift the focus away from political leadership, and towards the full timeline from the beginnings of Canada as we know it in the crucible of empire, through her evolution as a modern nation state, to the present and into the future.
— Take a broader approach to the educational aspect. For the immediate future, make Truth & Reconciliation the main focus. Aim towards broad community engagement that invites people of all ages, all backgrounds, all convictions to actually doing history, i.e. broadening knowledge, deepening understanding, and telling the story anew in the light of the present.
— Acknowledge that at this juncture moving beyond a “whitewashed” telling of the Canadian story has become an urgent priority, and that the Prime Ministerial focus may be a hindrance for this kind of work.
— Acknowledge that your inspiration to do something fun and exciting with traditional historical statues came at the worst possible time.
But if you can, stay inspired. Explore ways to regain trust, and get permission to continue.
To that end, consider an offer to cover all the statues in a coat of white paint, with a pledge not to reveal the monumental brass underneath until it is abundantly clear that the people of Wilmot, of Greater Waterloo, and of Canada are resolutely on the road towards Truth and Reconciliation.
If that’s not acceptable, try something else. Once it is clear that trust has been restored, finish what you started: Install the four statues that are ready to go, and mark the places where the other 13 will stand when the time comes.
There are so many things wrong with this project, but that could become a strength. With adjustments based on learning from how the community has reacted, it could still end up being of great service to each and every one of us as we consider our roles as active and informed citizens within the three spheres of Canadian democracy: federal, provincial and municipal.