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11.20  Beyond Sir John: Responding to the Macdonald Bicentennial in Kingston, Canada

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9:00, Monday 6 Jun 2016 (30 minutes)

Kingston, Ontario (three hours drive west of Montreal), was the childhood home and seat of political power of Sir John A. Macdonald, the first prime minister of Canada. Walking around the city, it is impossible to forget this. There are twelve plaques about Macdonald in Kingston public spaces. A grand statue of Macdonald in a cape stands on a pedestal at the corner of City Park. Sir John A. Macdonald Boulevard is one of the city’s major thoroughfares; Sir John A. Macdonald School is its newest elementary school; the law school at Queen’s University is in Macdonald Hall. And so on. 

In this paper, I will reflect on the celebrations in Kingston during 2015, Macdonald’s bicentennial year, and on resistance to them. The city and Heritage Canada spent upward of a million dollars on the birthday party. And yet, as the year approached and progressed, the denial of Macdonald’s direct role in the death by starvation of thousands of Indigenous people during his lifetime, and of the dire effects since then of his initiation of residential schools and the Indian Act, increasing grew thinner. I will argue that the sheer excess and one-sidedness of the official perspectives backfired, and in fact provoked and galvanized many people in the city to insist on Macdonald’s implication in colonial violence, and to honour and share other histories otherwise rendered invisible on our streets, in our schools, and in our hearts. I will speak particularly about initiatives to increase the awareness of the Indigenous histories of Kingston. 

My position with regard to this topic is both a scholar and a participant: I sit on the Municipal Heritage Committee and its Communication and Education Working Group, I sat on the Commemoration Policy Working Group, and I have been an active participant in various events and activities critical of Macdonald’s legacy. I will reflect on relationships that I have observed between City Council, city committees, university students and faculty, the First Nations community, the city’s “heritage” community, and other community activists. The paper is engaged with the micropolitics of heritage, the question of who is an activist, and questions of agency, materiality, and affect.

Laura Murray


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