Wilmot councillor moves to pause prime minister statue project

A Wilmot councillor wants to stop any further installation of prime minister statues in Baden. Coun. Angie Hallman says she doesn’t think there was enough consultation done in 2016 when council approved the project, which is set to put 22 statues on parkland beside Castle Kilbride.

‘I think that we need to be very careful to not tell someone else's story,’ Angie Hallman says

This John A. Macdonald statue is located beside Castle Kilbride in Baden, Ont. It's part of the Prime Ministers Path project. Wilmot Coun. Angie Hallman wants to see the project put on hold until there can be more public consultation on it, including with local Indigenous groups. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

A Wilmot politician wants to pause plans to install statues of former prime ministers in Baden to allow for more consultation with Indigenous groups and friendship centres in the region.

The Prime Minister Path project would place 22 statues of Canada's prime ministers on a path next to the township's offices and Castle Kilbride.

Wilmot Coun. Angie Hallman is bringing forward a motion at council on Monday, asking her fellow councillors to put the project on hold. 

She said looking back at when the project was approved in 2016, she now feels there wasn't enough consultation done. 

"I think the appropriate next step is to hear from everyone," Hallman said. "The conversation will be uncomfortable."

She said councillors need to listen to people, particularly members of the Indigenous community and "anyone else that was harmed by Sir John McDonald actions of the past or other prime ministers of our history."

Hallman says the conversation also needs to include the arts community to share their experiences.

"We need to create this safe space to allow everyone to be heard," she said. "I think that we need to be very careful to not tell someone else's story without letting them first provide input."

Hallman says she's informally reached out to several groups and all have expressed interest in being part of a conversation around the project.

Cheyanne Thorpe is with the group Support The Removal of The John A Macdonald Statue in Baden. She says it's nice to see councillors wanting to start that dialogue, but she worries it's "too little too late."

"Our overall message is that what these statues represent and the underline, [the] oppression and intergenerational trauma that they stand for, is something that all individuals should have a say on, especially one on public grounds and erected by public officials," she said in an emailed statement.

Project courted controversy early

The project has been controversial from the very early stages.

Jim Rodger, a former Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate principal, led the group that raised money for the statues, which were meant to celebrate Canada's sesquicentennial — 150 years since Confederation.

The group had hoped to put the statues in Kitchener's Victoria Park, but that plan was nixed in 2014 after public outcry over the idea.

Then the plan was to put the statues on the Wilfrid Laurier University campus in Waterloo. The Macdonald statue was placed in a temporary location on campus, but removed in 2016 after the schools' board of governors cancelled the project plans.

In April 2016, Wilmot council voted to put the 22 statues on the grounds of Castle Kilbride and the township's offices.

So far, there are statues of Macdonald, Robert Borden, William Lyon Mackenzie King, Lester Pearson and Kim Campbell.

In June, four more prime ministers were scheduled to be added to the path: a sculptural grouping of John Abbott, John Thompson, Mackenzie Bowell and Charles Tupper created by B.C. artist Nathan Scott. The four men each had a single term of office between 1891 and 1896 and have been dubbed "the unfortunate four."

Statue not historically significant

There have been calls for statues of Macdonald to be removed from other parts of the country because of his record dealing with Indigenous communities, including his role in forming residential schools.

David MacDonald is a political science professor at the University of Guelph. He studies Indigenous politics in Canada and the residential school system. He recently wrote an opinion piece that ran in the Toronto Star in favour of removing a John A. Macdonald statue from in front of city hall in Victoria, B.C.

He says the statue in Baden should also be removed because it was made in 2015 and "has little intrinsic historic significance, unlike say the one of Macdonald in Montreal that dates back well over a century."

He said in an emailed statement that the statue in Baden doesn't reflect any of Macdonald's flaws and said it was "a very whitewashed view of history and his role in it."

"I am surprised that something this one-sided was actually created after the release of the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] final reports in 2015. The report highlighted Macdonald's role in the residential schools and in the starvation of plains Indigenous peoples in no uncertain terms."

with files from CBC's Joe Pavia


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