A massive bronze statue of the Queen on a throne – with a cost of more than $800,000, pledged by private donors – has sat in storage for five years, instead of towering from its intended home on a granite plinth in front of Ontario’s Legislature. And it’s unclear if the 5,000-pound work of art will ever be displayed at Queen’s Park.
The long-delayed project is on indefinite hold amid concerns over the toppling of other statutes – including one of the Queen and one of Queen Victoria last summer at the Manitoba Legislature – as well as the legacy of Canada’s residential schools for Indigenous children and the uncertain fate of the nearby bronze of Sir John A. Macdonald, which remains entombed in a grey wooden box two years after activists splattered it with pink paint.
The legislature’s Speaker, Ted Arnott, whose authority covers Queen’s Park and its grounds, put the politically sensitive decisions about the bronzes of both the first prime minister and the Queen on pause months before the recent election that returned the Progressive Conservative government of Doug Ford to power. The Premier’s Office declined to comment for this story, referring inquiries to the Speaker.
The next Speaker has yet to be elected by incoming MPPs, who are set to return to the Legislature in August. Mr. Arnott, a longtime PC MPP and a supporter of the monarchy, declined to comment on what the next Speaker will do, although he also said he would stand for the position. (Mississauga--Streetsville PC MPP Nina Tangri has also said she intends to run.)
“This year is the Platinum Jubilee and we’re celebrating the Queen’s years of service to the people of the Commonwealth, including Canada,” Mr. Arnott said in an interview. “And I think the statue exists and there will be further discussions I’m sure in the coming months on that issue. But I can’t really speculate as to what the outcome will be.”
Monarchists who have been driving the plan to honour the Queen say they remain hopeful the statue will be erected by the new visitors’ entrance to the Legislature, not far from the imposing depiction of her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria. But time is running out on the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations held to mark her 70th year on the throne. The anniversary is already set to be commemorated at Queen’s Park with an Indigenous-themed garden this summer.
Michael Smith, a trustee with the Canadian Royal Heritage Trust that raised the money for the statue, says he is disappointed. But he said he understands why the plan – which dates back to the previous Liberal government in 2015 and was approved by the now 96-year-old Queen herself – is on hold. The Queen’s only requirement, Mr. Smith said, was that the statue be placed on a three-metre plinth, to keep it from being damaged.
“We certainly do not want to put up a statue of the Queen and then a week later have it come down,” said Mr. Smith, who works for the Ontario Financing Authority, which manages the government’s debt. “We’ve got to avoid that.”
He said while about $65,000 of the statue’s cost has been pledged by smaller donors, the “lion’s share” was to come from Anthony (Tony) Fell, the former chairman of RBC Dominion Securities.
Mr. Fell declined to discuss the issue in detail when contacted by The Globe and Mail but said he had been told earlier this year that the plan was “not going ahead” and that he was no longer involved. He said he would reconsider if the project were revived.
For now, the statue appears to be in financial limbo and it is unclear who would pay for it if it is not put up.
The artist who produced the statue, Ruth Abernathy – who also created the depiction of Glenn Gould sitting on a bench in front of the CBC’s Toronto headquarters – also declined to comment. For now, her statue remains hidden from view at a foundry in Etobicoke.
The controversy over statues at Queen’s Park became even more acute after the discovery last summer of unmarked graves at a residential school site in Kamloops. B.C., and subsequent similar revelations elsewhere. Rows of shoes meant to symbolize the victims of the residential school system, which was established under the first prime minister, appeared around the box put up to protect the Macdonald statue, as well as on the Legislature’s steps.
Several other Macdonald statues across the country, including in the first prime minister’s political home base of Kingston, Ont., have been moved or taken down, and some schools named after him have been renamed.
A sign on the barrier surrounding the Macdonald statue says the Speaker is considering how the statue and other monuments on the grounds “can respect all of our diverse cultures and peoples.” But a committee of MPPs Mr. Arnott had convened on the issue hadn’t met in many months when the legislature was dissolved in May for the election, with attention focused on the pandemic.
One of that committee’s members is Sol Mamakwa, who was just re-elected as the NDP MPP from the massive Northwestern Ontario riding of Kiiwetinoong and is a member of the remote Kingfisher Lake First Nation, 520 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. Before being sworn in this week, he questioned why MPPs need to swear allegiance to the Queen, calling the practice colonial on Twitter.
In an interview, Mr. Mamakwa, who attended a residential school, said installing a statue of the Queen would be “kind of backwards.”
He also said it was long past time to have a discussion about Macdonald and the other statues at Queen’s Park.
“I think to be able to reconcile the colonial and some of the oppressive symbols of our past, such as Sir John A. Macdonald, the time is now,” he said. The NDP’s policy calls for an Indigenous-led special commission with binding powers to review the Legislature’s various monuments.
“That’s a dialogue we need to have,” Mr. Mamakwa added. “If it was up to me, you know, move him to a museum or something.”
The Legislature is in the early planning stages of a renovation that may cost $1-billion or more. The renovation is expected to take years and is needed to shore up and modernize the aging 129-year-old building. The Speaker acknowledged in a interview late last year that the renovation could be an opportunity to have a conversation about the symbols that surround the seat of Ontario’s democracy.
Change is already under way. Inside the legislative chamber itself, a new Indigenous woodcarving, by artist Garrett Nahdee from the Walpole Island First Nation near the Ontario-Michigan border, was installed in a prominent place above the main entrance last year.
Plans for a permanent display honouring the victims of residential schools inside or outside the Legislature have also not yet been finalized and would only happen after consultations with Indigenous leaders, Mr. Arnott said.
Regardless of the final decision on the Queen’s statue, Mr. Arnott said the Legislature’s Sergeant-at-Arms had provided a threat assessment concluding that if the Macdonald statue were displayed again, it would be vandalized and perhaps even toppled or beheaded – something seen as a safety risk.
“Right now, there’s a lot of people focusing on Sir John A. Macdonald’s role in history,” Mr. Arnott said. “And they’re not looking at it the same way as they might have before, including me.”
Noting that Macdonald’s bronze, put up in 1894 three years after his death, replaced a fountain at that end of Queen’s Park, the Speaker added: “Maybe we need more fountains, and fewer statues.”
Russell Smith, a longtime monarchist and retired Ontario civil servant, first suggested the idea of a new statue of Canada’s head of state at Queen’s Park a decade ago and provided the seed money to launch the project. He says the statue, which depicts the Queen on the throne that is in Canada’s Senate chamber, is not only about honouring the 96-year-old Queen’s life of service but also the Crown’s role in Canada’s constitutional monarchy.
“It’s not just a person. It’s a whole system of justice and parliamentary democracy and everything else,” said Mr. Smith, who remembers seeing the then-Princess Elizabeth on a Toronto visit when he was a child in the 1950s and met her twice at events in the 1970s. “I think she’s a symbol, and I think she’s a symbol for good.”
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