A Victory for John A. Macdonald

Picton town council votes to keep statue, urges dialogue
November 30, 2020 Updated: November 30, 2020


The town council of Picton, Ont., is to be applauded for its sensible decision not to remove a statue of John A. Macdonald, despite pressure to do so. Sitting on Main Street in front of the town library, the statue has been the focus of controversy and abuse in recent years, like others across Canada.

The 12-2 vote took place Nov. 17 in Picton, where Macdonald worked as a young lawyer in the 1830s. He also worked in the nearby town of Napanee, Richard Gwyn tells us in “John A: The Man Who Made Us.” “His accomplishments were staggering,” Gwyn writes, among them Confederation, a national railway, the Royal North-West Mounted Police (forerunners to the RCMP), and immigration.

Aware in the 1850s of D’Arcy McGee’s vision of a nation from sea to sea, Macdonald at first resisted this dream, worried about weakening the United Province of Canada (the future Ontario and Quebec) and its ties to Great Britain. But as the power and Manifest Destiny of the great American republic crystallized during and after the Civil War, Macdonald saw that unless he and others acted, the vast western plains would be absorbed by the United States.

As Conrad Black has occasionally and ably reminded or taught us, Macdonald’s contributions over half a century of public service vastly outweigh any peccadilloes he may have committed against non-white residents. Without him, Canada would not exist. A Scot by birth, a British subject by socialization, and a Canadian at heart, he loved the country he served.

How would Macdonald have responded to all the ill treatment today? With a smile and a quip. He never expected gratitude and had great tolerance for the foibles of his fellow man, one of his secrets to success. He didn’t try to change people; he worked with the clay at hand. And since he was far from perfect himself, he understood and forgave the frailties of others.

Informed Canadians already know that Macdonald himself wrote most of the British North America Act (because almost he alone, among MPs, was equipped to do so); that his intelligence and charm enabled him to conciliate and motivate when needed to unite the colonies into the Dominion of Canada; that his alliances with George Brown and George-Etienne Cartier were critical to the birth of Canada, which became one of the best places to live in the world, as millions of immigrants can and do attest.

Yet that Picton council vote to keep his statue almost didn’t happen.

“Council listened to more than three hours of deputations by the public and while most favoured keeping the statue in place, a number of impassioned pleas were made to have the piece removed,” Bruce Bell reports in the Nov. 19 edition of Today’s Farmer. “After much discussion, Coun. Ernie Margetson’s motion to have the statue removed pending further consultation was amended by fellow councillor Phil St-Jean to have it remain in front of the library.”

St-Jean said the statue was much needed to help advance discussions about indigenous people. Picton Mayor Steve Ferguson agreed, saying he hopes the decision will lead to more dialogue.

This is a victory of reason and common sense over emotionalism and those with destructive agendas—a victory of the majority view over a manipulative minority position. If Canada is to maintain respect for its traditions and democratic values, such wins in the public realm must return to being the norm, not the exception.

Prince Edward County, in which Picton sits, is of more than a passing interest to me, as I lived there in the 1970s and took my high school years at Prince Edward Collegiate Institute in Picton. Cherry Valley was home, a house on the shore of East Lake, where pike fishing became a habit. The late George Elson was the best teacher I ever had, for he taught us, in Grade 13, practical English usage I still employ today.

Work on Clifford Foster’s farm gave this former city boy a chance to develop some muscle, especially during the haying season. At that time, farm work was labour intensive. Five or more of us pulled the square bales off the field and tossed them onto a large wagon. Clifford, bull-strong and perspiring, built them into a stack so high it barely got under the hydro lines. His father Harold, with hands massive and gnarled, drove the tractor as we sweated and joked in the field. I’ve rarely been happier.

Acres of strawberries also had to be picked (mostly by local women) and sold in the Belleville market, along with apples and pears, while tomatoes went to the canning factories. Corn by the dozens of bushels also was picked to be sold. In recent years Prince Edward County has shifted to wine production, but back then it was the more traditional farming pursuits by a very traditional people, whose ancestors were United Empire Loyalists.

My brother and I were out hiking one day when we came upon an elderly man near his home along the shore of Lake Ontario. He asked me where I lived, and I told him Cherry Valley. He turned to his wife and shouted, “It’s OK, Martha, he’s one of us!”

And Picton is one of the older patches in the great fabric of Canada, Macdonald’s greatest achievement. Hats off to its council for standing up against woke proponents and cancel culture. Censorship—for that is what statue toppling amounts to—has no place in a democracy and is the stuff of fascism, communism, and Taliban primitives. Mayor Steve Ferguson and Coun. Phil St-Jean are right: Add interpretative plaques and encourage further dialogue and understanding on all sides, because the deeper people dig into John A. Macdonald’s fascinating story, the more adherents he will win.

Brad Bird is an award-winning reporter and editorial writer of Métis background. He has also written or edited five books, including “My Dear Boy,” a family history.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.