Councillors support installing signs that share Indigenous history at 'problematic' sites in Hamilton

Councillors have voted in favour of setting up signs at six sites in the city that will indicate they're "problematic" and provide Indigenous history, following a review of Hamilton's landmarks and monuments, including the statue of John A. Macdonald.

'Our intent is to round out the true history,' says manager of Indigenous Relations

People tied a rope around the Sir John A. Macdonald statue in Hamilton's Gore Park and hauled it down in August 2021. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Councillors have voted in favour of setting up signs at six sites in the city that will indicate they're "problematic" and provide Indigenous history, following a review of Hamilton's landmarks and monuments, including the statue of John A. Macdonald.

The emergency and community services committee received a report Thursday calling for the city to build relationships with local Indigenous communities based on trust and respect, hire an Indigenous community liaison and curator and prioritize gathering spaces for Indigenous community members.

It also suggested setting up some sort of sign at five "high priority sites" that will say the city is aware they're "problematic and educates the public about the need for further consultation."

"Our intent is to round out the true history," said Shelly Hill, manager of Indigenous relations for the city.

Committee members voted 4-0 in favour of the report and its recommendations. It will go to council on May 11.

The six locations singled out in the report include the Ryerson Recreation Centre, two sites of monuments to United Empire Loyalists on Main Street East and Dundurn Park, the Stoney Creek site of an Augustus Jones monument, and two spots in Gore Park — the site of a statue of Queen Victoria and where the statue of John A. Macdonald stood before it was hauled down last summer.

Those locations were identified by a circle of experts and First Peoples Group, an Indigenous advisory firm based in Ottawa, as requiring "additional context to provide Indigenous history," the report reads.

The statue has been in storage since it was toppled last summer. (Jessica Ng/CBC)

Melissa Hammell, a senior associate with group, described the review as a chance to celebrate the area's rich history and the true story of its Indigenous occupants.

"What a beautiful opportunity you have in front of you to shift the heritage story from one of colonial and Euro-Canadian landscapes to one that includes and celebrates the people that have been here since time immemorial and are still here today, stronger than ever," she told councillors.

A document titled Honouring our Roots was prepared by First People's Group and shared with councillors.

It says the statue of John A. Macdonald should not be reinstalled and that the base and cannons that remain should also be taken away. A ceremony should be held to cleanse the site and Indigenous and non-Indigenous community members should have a chance to reenvision what should stand there, it adds.

"While Sir John A Macdonald is the 'hot-button' topic in Hamilton because of the way the statue was removed, it is important not to let this discussion over-shadow all the other important work that needs to be done," the report states.

Relocating or providing reinterpretation of the statue might have been an option if the city had voluntarily removed it, the report reads, but setting it back up now would be a "step in the wrong direction."

Instead it recommends putting all remaining pieces of the statue in storage indefinitely to allow for community engagement to happen "in a good way."

A 'do-it-yourself removal'

That perspective was echoed by Lyndon George, executive director with the Hamilton Anti-Racism Resource Centre who told the committee putting the statue back up would put relationship building at risk.

"The city witnessed a do-it-yourself removal of the Sir John A. statue, leading to further distrust and alienation in our community," he said. "This is an important opportunity to course correct, to listen to the voices of Hamilton's Indigenous community."

Miguel Avila-Velarde, who was arrested in connection to the toppling of the statue on August 14, 2021, also delegated.

As an Indigenous man from Peru, he said he's against any proposal to put the likeness of Macdonald back up.

"Why don't we consider putting them in some museum so people can remember the good things of the past, but also what happened in truth," he added.

People used spray paint and a circular saw on the Sir John A. Macdonald statute after it fell. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

The statue stood in Hamilton's Gore Park for roughly 128 years. Last summer it was toppled after hundreds of demonstrators marched through downtown and some hauled it down.

It has remained in storage since.

Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger drew criticism last week after he said he didn't believe the statue should disappear.

"Putting context there and providing information to people about the value of him as a first prime minister and the very poor things he did relative to residential schools and the Indigenous community, that's important information for people to have," Eisenberger told reporters on Friday. 

"If you don't put it there, then there's no educational opportunity at all."

When asked by CBC if he was OK with seeing "the statue back up with a sign that has extra context," he said he was "absolutely supportive of that," although did not indicate where. 

Site 'charged with tension'

The signage recommended for the handful of sites carries a cost up to $60,000.

Ward 6 Coun. Tom Jackson questioned why spend money on a sign when the statue of Macdonald is already gone.

Hammell responded that what they're picturing isn't a traditional brass plaque, more of a temporary notice to let people know they should keep an eye out for public engagement and a chance to weigh in on what goes there next.

"Obviously the site itself is charged with tension at the moment because of the way the statue came down," she said. "So it's just a sign to say 'We know that this site is problematic or that there was tension here and we're working through this.'"

Councillors also asked whether the report and consultation may lead to other memorials being taken down in the future.

Hill and Hammell said that's something they can't answer, but that having the conversation about statues allows everyone to share their perspective.

"I think you'd have a lot less of a chance of statues coming down in the way the Sir John A. Macdonald statue came down in Hamilton, if people are provided the space to have those conversations," said Hammell.

with files from Bobby Hristova