First Nations groups, Charlottetown council differ on Sir John A. Macdonald statue

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CHARLOTTETOWN — First Nations groups and Charlottetown city council are at odds over how to deal with a statue of Canada's first prime minister.

Members of the Epekwitk Assembly of Councils — which represents the Abegweit and Lennox Island First Nations — say they want more than just modifications to an existing plaque next to the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald.

"We understood when we were asked for input following the city's decision to keep the statue last summer, that we were to provide recommendations on how that statue could be offset to address the situation, in keeping with reconciliation objectives," says a letter signed by the chiefs of the two First Nations and sent to the city Thursday.

The demands from the Prince Edward Island First Nations groups echo similar calls across the country for the removal of Macdonald statues because of his role in the creation of Canada's residential school system. One statue of him was toppled by protesters in Montreal last August.

The chiefs had recommended a number of changes, including adding a figure such as an Indigenous child or elder to the installation, which features Macdonald seated on a bench, his arm outstretched and his top hat beside him. They also proposed sealing off the rest of the bench to remove the possibility of photo opportunities next to the former prime minister.

They say they want the work done by this spring at the latest, and if the artist hired for the project is not Indigenous, a Mi'kmaq artist should serve as a consultant.

"We feel this matter has dragged on for too long and that simply rewriting the plaque is simply not acceptable," says the letter signed by Chief Darlene Bernard of Lennox Island and Chief Junior Gould of Abegweit.

Charlottetown Mayor Philip Brown said discussions have been underway since last summer and it has been difficult during the pandemic to get everyone at the same table to make progress.

He said the plan is to keep the piece of art in place and add the full story of Canada's first prime minister.

"It's going to take time, but we are working as a collective group and trying to collaborate on a process that probably won't satisfy all parties and individuals, but at least we're working towards getting a plaque in place with representation of First Nations," Brown said in an interview Friday.

Brown has asked history scholars at the University of Prince Edward Island to be involved, and he said the Native Council of Prince Edward Island has also asked for more time to do research.

The mayor said that while elsewhere there have been calls to simply remove statues of Macdonald, Charlottettown is in a unique position as the location where the Fathers of Confederation first met to discuss creating the country.

"This is where it all started. Who was at the head of the table when it all started? It was Sir John A. Macdonald," he said. "We have to look at our role and our place in history."

Major work is underway to restore nearby Province House and redesign the grounds around the building, and Brown said he expects there will be opportunities there for information panels to tell more of Macdonald's history.

He said he wants to hear from Indigenous groups and history scholars, and any changes to the statue must be approved by the artist, who lives in Colorado.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 29, 2021.

— By Kevin Bissett in Fredericton.

The Canadian Press