Hamilton

Hamilton councillors vote against removing Sir John A. Macdonald statue from Gore Park

The city received 1,002 correspondences calling for the Sir John A Macdonald statue to be removed

Posted: July 08, 2021
Last Updated: July 08, 2021

The Sir John A. Macdonald statue will remain in Gore Park. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

Despite receiving 1,002 correspondences calling for the Sir John A. Macdonald statue to be removed from downtown Hamilton, city councillors decided it will stay right where it is.

Ward 3 (central lower city) Coun. Nrinder Nann moved the motion on Thursday, which aimed to remove the statue of Canada's first prime minister from Gore Park and put it into storage. It was defeated in a vote of three to two. 

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Christine Joseph-Davies, a first-generation survivor of a residential school, said her family and the Indigenous community have suffered more than words can explain. 

"It's a stab in the heart and the swish of a knife every time I walk by [the statue]," Joseph-Davies said at the emergency and community services committee on Thursday.

Nann and Coun. Brad Clark (Ward 9) voted to remove the statue, while councillors Sam Merulla (Ward 4), Tom Jackson (Ward 6), and Esther Pauls (Ward 7) were opposed. The decision needs to be ratified by council. 

Also raised at the meeting on Thursday: a city review of landmarks and monuments, including parks and street names. 

The review, which was unanimously passed and is also pending council approval, will "determine opportunities to honour the Indigenous community." 

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Ignoring request 'sugar-coats' history

The decisions follow the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves on the lands of former residential schools that Indigenous children were forced to attend.

Joseph-Davies said the graves proved what Indigenous people already knew. 

Macdonald was involved in the planning and expansion of the system, which tore children from their families, homes, language, and culture. His statue in Hamilton has been painted red in recent weeks and spent several days wrapped in cloth after a protest.

"Ignoring us...only white-washes white supremacy world views and defends the shallow, sugar-coated version of Canadian history that protects the anti-indigenous racism and promotes a variety of undercooked, dangerous ideas," Joseph-Davies said. 

City councillors in favour of removing the Sir John A. Macdonald statue wanted it to stay in storage while city staff completed a review of landmark and monuments in Hamilton. (Robert Krbavac/CBC)

Nann called on councillors to "step" into their compassion and support Indigenous neighbours to heal. Statements about the horrors, she said, aren't enough. 

"At this time we, as elected officials, are being called upon to take real action," she said.

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Several Indigenous community members spoke at the meeting and urged the city to take the statue down, saying it reminded them of the children who suffered and the trauma experienced by Indigenous people. 

"It is shameful that it has not yet been removed. It is shameful that we continue to have to ask," said Jordan Carrier. "If you're still unsure of your vote, or leaning towards wanting to keep the statue in a public place like Gore Park, I ask you to reflect on why you value things over human beings."

"We were promised truth and reconciliation, and I'm not seeing either of those things," said Tristan Maclaurin. 

Councillors disagree on whether review should come first

Some cities across Canada have recently started to remove effigies of Canada's first prime minister, such as Charlottetown and Kingston. 

Pauls said she believes the study needed to be completed first before deciding the statue's fate. 

"If taking one statue down would solve the problem, we would have done it a long time ago," she said. 

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Jackson said he worried about a "domino effect" prompting calls for other statues to be removed or places to be renamed. He said it wouldn't give the review "a chance."

Clark disagreed, saying that having the statue remain would be a distraction. 

"If we're going to have a real, authentic, compassionate conversation about where we're going with our landmarks and monuments, we can only do that in good faith if we put that statue in storage," he said. 

Paul Johnson, general manager of healthy and safe communities, said the review will cover 200 items. He said many landmarks won't have a recommendation that comes forward, as they don't cause trauma or pain to the community. 

Miriam Sager, a worker at the Sexual Assault Centre (Hamilton and Area) and member of the Jewish community, spoke at the meeting about intergenerational trauma. 

"Removing these triggering images would of course offer consideration for the survivors and the families of those who did not survive," she said. "Symbols are important. They are a statement of our values, of whom we honour, whose actions we agree with.

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Sager asked if the land acknowledgement and flags at half-mast were empty gestures. 

"Please don't make people resort to taking this importance task into their own hands." 

Removing statue doesn't erase history, professor says

The committee heard from three community members who wanted the statue to stay, who said Macdonald was part of Canada's history. 

"The statue is part of our fabric for good and for bad," said Jason Capobianco. He said the location should evolve to include Indigenous leaders as an "educational destination."

But Steve Bunn, a history professor at Ryerson University, stressed taking the statue down wouldn't erase history — a concern raised by some who want it to stay. It also won't erase the former prime minister nor the atrocities attributed to him, he said. 

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When asked if the study should come first, Bunn replied that the "research, investigation and committees have already been done."

"If we haven't thought about this enough, then the problem is not the statue or the people that want it down — the problem is us."

Renaming Ryerson Recreation Centre

Other municipalities are renaming streets, while universities and school boards are renaming buildings that bear Macdonald's name. 

Councillors also debated a motion looking to rename Ryerson Recreation Centre. It's named after Egerton Ryerson, an architect of Canada's residential school system. 

It comes after the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board recently decided to undertake an Indigenous-led process to rename Ryerson Elementary School. The school is attached to the recreation centre. 

The item was referred to the facility naming subcommittee. 

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"I feel that rethinking the use of Ryerson's name in an honourific manner begins with empathy," said Rev. Ian Sloan, a minister at New Vision United Church who supported the motion.

Part of truth and reconciliation, he said, includes recognizing the complicity in enabling others' suffering to continue by honouring the lives of people who initiated it. 

Ryerson Recreation Centre is located at 251 Duke Street in Hamilton. The HWDSB is renaming the elementary school that's attached. (Dan Taekema)

The review of landmarks and monuments has a budget of $75,000, which will be taken from the tax stabilization reserve. 

According to a city report, depending on the recommendations, there might be additional costs to cover other aspects, such as "relocation costs, development of interpretive content, providing additional signage to share an inclusive history, renaming and re-signing landmarks, additional landmarks, etc."


Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.