Sir John A. Macdonald sculptor says statue allows us to confront Canada's past

A long-time artist who has created dozens of monuments of historical figures across Canada says the defacement of the statue she sculpted of Sir John A. Macdonald in Baden, Ont., west of Kitchener, raises an important discussion about the historical figures we erect as monuments.

Red paint was thrown on the John A. Macdonald statue in Baden, Ont. on National Indigenous Peoples Day

Artist Ruth Abernethy working on another statue of Sir John A. Macdonlad, displayed in Picton, Ontario. (Submitted by Ruth Abernethy)

A long-time artist says the defacement of a Sir John A. Macdonald statue she sculpted raises an important discussion about the historical figures we erect as monuments.

On Sunday, which was National Indigenous Peoples Day, red paint was thrown on the monument in Baden, Ont., west of Kitchener. 

Sir John A. Macdonald has been criticized for introducing Canada's residential school system during his time as prime pinister. There are calls in communities across the country to remove statues of him, including in Kingston, Ont., Charlottetown and Montreal.

Ruth Abernethy, who created the Macdonald statue in 2015, says she understands the calls for change, but she thinks the focus should be on who we choose to make into monuments going forward.

'Sanitizing public space' doesn't work: artist

And even though Abernethy says "whatever goes up can go down," she doesn't think the way forward is to erase the reminder of Canada's racist past. 

"Complicated lives leave complicated legacies," said Abernethy, who has created monuments of dozens of historical figures across Canada. 

"No one is honoured because they led a perfect life. So you take them with their warts and with their accomplishments and other decisions that we would now do differently."

"I don't think that sanitizing public space has worked anywhere," she said.

Red paint covered the statue on Sunday, which was National Indigenous Peoples Day. Sir. John A. Macdonald has been criticized for introducing Canada's residential school system during his time as Prime Minister. (Albert Delitala/CBC News)

The statue of Macdonald in Baden is part of a project called the Prime Ministers Path, which features life-size sculptures of Canada's leaders.

"A lot of people don't understand what the project is all about," said Les Armstrong, the mayor of Wilmot Township. "It's about all the prime ministers that have taken us from 1867 to 2020. All 23 have probably made mistakes."Armstrong describes the incident on Sunday as disappointing.

But for Lori Campbell, the director of the University of Waterloo Indigenous Student Centre and Indigenous Studies minor program, the normal sight of the statue is what she finds disappointing.

"It's painful because of the impact that Sir John A. Macdonald's policies, and the work he did, have on me today and affect my nieces and nephews," said Campbell.

'Their intent was violence'

Campbell says she hopes that one day people will only be able to see statues of John A. Macdonald and other historical figures who have introduced racist policies in museums, and museums only.

That way, Campbell said people can learn about these figures in safe spaces with context, instead of in the open public, where these figures are being commemorated.

"Their intent was violence against Indigenous people. And other Canadians should feel disturbed by that as well," said Campbell.

Abernethy says she does feel disturbed by the racism of past leaders, and thinks it's time to confront our history. And, she added, it's not just one leader or figure who's responsible for the racist society of the nineteenth century.

"It's time for us to be inconvenienced by parts of our own truth that have been obscured on purpose," said Abernethy.