Looking for hope (part 12)

Kingston, like other cities across Canada, has been engaged in discussions about what to do with the many symbols of white colonialism that dot the community. As the home – however short-lived – of John A. Macdonald, there are plenty of them, including a large statue of the former PM that sits in prominence in the corner of City Park. The ongoing presence of this statue has been debated and discussed for many years.

Beginning late last week, a group of Indigenous people and settler allies, Revolution of the Heart: Ceremonial Action, established a presence at the statue, calling for its removal as one acknowledgement of Macdonald’s key role in the residential school system.

This week, after hearing from many delegations arguing for and against its removal, City Council passed a motion (8 – 5) to remove the statue and relocate it to the cemetery where MacDonald is buried. Like many political outcomes, this was one of those compromises that did not reflect the recommendations of any of those who made presentations to Council, but provided a way forward.

Beginning to right some wrongs

It seems like an important (and, in a city so proud of its white, settler heritage, a surprising) small step towards addressing the substantive issues raised by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

A beginning, with much more hard work to come.

As settler Aric McBay said in his presentation to City Council:

“I think of this as an opportunity. We have a chance to be part of transformation.

“We have a chance to finally address injustices that Canada has ignored for generations. We have an opportunity, as settlers, to show Indigenous communities that we can genuinely listen. To show that we want to move forward with reconciliation in good faith, that we want a discussion about heritage in Kingston that’s genuinely inclusive. To show that we intend to be on the right side of history.”

And down he came

The city did not waste any time removing the statue once the motion had been passed. A work crew was onsite at 6 o’clock this morning to do the deed. Keeping a close eye was a large crowd of Indigenous people, many of whom had been part of the encampment, along with settler allies, and, resplendent in medals, bagpipes and Canadian flags, a small group wishing to see the statue remain.

Overall, the feeling was respectfully festive. The ceremonial fire burned. A women’s drumming circle grew as more and more drummers arrived. When it was silent, we were treated to the sounds of Buffy St. Marie over the sound system. National media jostled to position their cameras for the best possible shots of the statue coming down. When work on the removal stopped – as it did frequently — we talked quietly among ourselves, some of us with people we had not seen for 15 months, or strolled around the park. Plenty of snacks – including homemade cornbread – were available for anyone who had skipped breakfast to get to the park.

It was a slow process. Macdonald sat atop a very high pedestal, so every task required some kind of lifting equipment. First, the dramatically red shroud that had been placed over Macdonald by Indigenous activists was removed. Then, a much larger crane was manoeuvred into place and the statue was strapped and attached by large hooks to the crane. Chisels were placed between the base of the statue and the top of the pedestal.

And, then, finally, after almost three hours, it was over in an instant. Accompanied by cheers, and more than a few tears, from the crowd, the statue came, seemingly easily, up from the pedestal. Macdonald turned his back on us, as he had in real life turned his back on Indigenous peoples, and slowly settled to the ground, from where he would be moved to a flatbed truck for his final departure from the park.

The question about what we do with the thousands and thousands of symbols of colonialism in this country is a big one. There will be different answers in different situations. And, of course, if we are to make a meaningful commitment to reconciliation, both personally and systemically, much more work than removing a few statues will be required.

However challenging the discussions and work that lie ahead, the removal of this particular marker of colonialism in the city where I live felt like an important moment of hope; one that I was honoured to observe and that I will carry with me for a long time to come.

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