Councillors at Hamilton’s emergency and community services committee have voted against removing the Sir John A. Macdonald statue from Gore Park, despite letters from over 1,000 residents calling for that action.
The motion, which was brought forward by Ward 3 councillor Nrinder Nann and seconded by Stoney Creek councillor Brad Clark, was defeated in a 3 to 2 vote on Thursday.
Councillors Tom Jackson, Esther Pauls and Sam Merulla voted against removing the statue of Canada’s first prime minister and putting it in storage.
The committee did approve a review of Hamilton’s landmarks and monuments, which will cost $75,000 and will be covered by the city’s tax stabilization reserve.
It’s expected to be completed sometime in the fall.
While the motion to remove the statue was shot down at the committee, it will be discussed again at Friday’s city council meeting.
A legislative coordinator for the city said they received 1,002 letters regarding the statue, and all of them were in favour of its removal.
Most of the virtual and video delegations at the committee also called for the statue to come down, with several Indigenous residents detailing the ongoing harm and pain it causes them and the rest of Hamilton’s Indigenous community.
“Exactly how many thousand people have to stand up before Hamilton city council listens?” asked Christine Joseph-Davies, a first-generation survivor of Canada’s residential school system.
“Instead of creating yet more dialogue, change direction and take some action. Remove this father of racism from the Hamilton core. It’s offensive and cruel to celebrate this father of genocide. It’s a stab in the heart and a twist of the knife every time I walk by.”
Jordan Carrier, a Plains Cree woman from Saskatchewan who has lived in Hamilton for 20 years, said it’s the least the city can do to address truth and reconciliation.
“The removal of a statue is really low hanging fruit for the city to take action on. It is a simple request to move it to a museum, archive, or storage. And if this cannot be accommodated, how do we have faith the city will be able to ever support reconciliation efforts?”
Three of the 11 delegates opposed the statue’s removal, including Robin McKee, chair of the Sir John A. Macdonald Society of Hamilton.
He suggested the statue be covered up until the review of the city’s landmarks and monuments is complete.
“At this point, the report has not been done yet, and you’re going to be voting on something without the facts in front of you,” said McKee.
He suggested the statue be “shrouded” while the review is underway, citing an incident several weeks ago when demonstrators covered up the statue with black cloth and red rope ahead of National Indigenous Peoples Day.
Another historian spoke in favour of the statue’s removal.
“All this discussion about erasing history, that statue of John A. Macdonald is not history — it’s commemoration,” said Steve Bunn, a history professor at Ryerson University.
“And commemoration and history are very different things. You cannot erase history by removing a statue first and foremost, because it is not history to begin with.”
Nann echoed that sentiment while speaking about her motion, saying removing the statue from its pedestal in Gore Park will not erase Macdonald as Canada’s first prime minister.
“A statue on a pedestal on a city square downtown in Hamilton doesn’t change that fact, nor affirm it. But removing the statue out of public view now — not months from now, not years from now — is a direct, tangible, caring and compassionate, real thing that we can do to support our Indigenous neighbours to heal,” Nann said.
“At a minimum, it’s a simple act we can take to show that we are listening.”
Clark, who seconded the motion, said he couldn’t “in good conscience” ask Hamilton’s Indigenous residents to participate in a review of the city’s monuments if the Macdonald statue remained standing.
“It becomes a huge distraction to what we would like to see as a meaningful conversation on how we address the issues of monuments and how we tell the history of Canada here in Hamilton. We can only worry about what we can do in Hamilton. But we need to have that conversation.”
Of the three councillors who voted against removing the statue, Ward 6’s Tom Jackson and Ward 7’s Esther Pauls both cited a desire to see the review completed before taking any action.
“I worry that this will just be a domino effect and won’t even give the landmarks monument review a chance,” said Jackson.
“We might as well undo what we approved unanimously if we’re already going to preempt it by removing possibly two names today.”
The second name Jackson was referring to was that of Egerton Ryerson and another motion from Nann, on behalf of Ward 1’s Maureen Wilson, to remove his name from the recreation centre in the lower city.
That motion was introduced following a decision from Hamilton’s public school board to rename Ryerson Elementary School, which is connected to the rec centre.
It was ultimately referred to Hamilton’s facility naming subcommittee.
It remains to be seen whether the majority of councillors will uphold the vote about the Macdonald statue at Friday’s council meeting.
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering with trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.