After more than four hours of heated discussion, Prince Edward County council voted 13-1 Monday to remove a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald from downtown Picton, Ont., and place it in storage.
"I can't recall a matter that has come before council that has so polarized our community and stirred such emotional responses," noted Mayor Steve Ferguson during the special council meeting, which was held virtually.
According to the county's website, the debate was prompted by the recent discovery of the remains of 215 children at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., and focused on the statue "as it relates to public safety and the contractual obligations of the municipality."
Here is an opportunity to honour the victims of John A. Macdonald and listen to the survivors who feel the ripple effect of his actions through generations. - Lilah Stanners, resident
Macdonald, a Father of Confederation and Canada's first prime minister, also presided over the establishment of the residential school system, under which thousands of Indigenous children were forced from their homes and families. Many, including the children whose remains were discovered in B.C., never returned.
Shortly after the discovery in B.C., Charlottetown city council voted to remove a statue of Macdonald from the P.E.I. capital's downtown. Elsewhere, statues of Macdonald have been doused in red paint, including the one in Picton. Activists in Montreal toppled a statue of Macdonald last August, and the former prime minister's legacy has been a matter of debate in other Canadian cities where streets, parks and buildings bear his name, including Ottawa.
It's not clear what the future holds for the statue in Picton once it's removed.
Coun. Ernie Margetson, who presented the motion for its removal, asked that it be placed in a "secure temporary storage facility" while the county discusses "a future public location" with various stakeholders including local Indigenous groups.
Coun. Brad Nieman cast the only opposing vote Monday.
"You've got to leave it there," Nieman said. "You've got to tell the bad stuff, not just the good stuff. You've got to tell both sides of it."
Last year, a working group recommended the statue be removed, but in November council voted no. Monday's vote, just seven months later, had a different result.
Residents speak out
About 40 residents attended the virtual meeting, some calling for the statue's permanent removal.
"Having a shrine to an architect of genocide in the middle of our town is a public safety issue," said Lilah Stanners. "Here is an opportunity to honour the victims of John A. Macdonald and listen to the survivors who feel the ripple effect of his actions through generations."
Others called for the statue to remain.
Kanenhariyo, who identified himself to the council as Mohawk, said Sir John A Macdonald "embodied genocide ... he talked about the Indian day schools, the industrial schools. I'm a survivor of one of those.
"I'd like to strongly encourage you not to take the statue down, but rather to embrace the opportunity to maybe build a wall with it ... and document the kind of sadness that man brought to this country, to this land."
Council will decide on the statue's future by March 31, 2022.