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Confronting Confederation Illustration by Maia Grecco

Confronting Confederation

PEI has long branded itself as the birthplace of Canada. How do you decolonize when Confederation is a cottage industry?

By the time the Sir John A. Macdonald statue was loaded up onto a truck and driven away, it had already lived through a series of public humiliations. One night in March, a Charlottetown resident poured a sticky, milky fluid that looked suspiciously like seafood chowder on his head. Before that, the statue was splashed with yellow paint. After both the chowder and yellow paint were cleaned up, a handprint of red paint appeared over his mouth, a symbol of solidarity with missing and murdered Indigenous women. 

In another incident, a Charlottetown man tipped Macdonald over and dragged him, damaging his head. The perpetrator, Gage Molyneaux, said he “grabbed the bottom of the bench” on which Macdonald sat and “heaved it,” adding that he didn’t think Canada’s founder should be celebrated. “He’s not a hero, he’s a villain,” he told the CBC proudly. 

But Charlottetown was intent on keeping him, unchanged. The city spent about $5,000 to clean him up, dust him off and put him back in his spot, right in the middle of downtown.

He was hard to miss. Macdonald sat on a city bench at the top of Victoria Row—a cobblestone pedestrian thoroughfare with a handful of bars and touristy craft shops, but also on Queen Street, possibly the main street of Charlottetown, running from the top to the bottom of the city.

Macdonald was etched in bronze: hunched over, arm outstretched to embrace an empty space, held for any passerby who chose to sit next to him. He wore a suit. His top hat was placed next to him on the bench. His most recognizable features—curly hair and an elongated nose—differentiated him from other Fathers of Confederation. His face was arranged into a frown, but his body was arched towards any potential companions, permanently prepared and engaged in debate. 

He’d been there since the city paid $75,000 to commission the statue in 2009, as part of a million-dollar federal program to promote Charlottetown’s role in the formation of Canada. Many people loved him and took pictures with him: end-of-night shots doing lewd things to the statue, or more earnest selfies, posing with Canada’s first prime minister.

But then, sentiment started to sour. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that Canada’s residential school system—of which John A. Macdonald was an architect, armed with the explicit goal of taking “the Indian out of the child”—amounted to an attempt at “cultural genocide.” Was that the beginning of the end for this statue? 

In Charlottetown, groups representing Indigenous people living on PEI, including the Epekwitk Assembly of Councils and the Native Council of PEI, called for more context to be added to the statue, acknowledging Canada’s first prime minister’s role in creating residential schools. 

There were letter-writing campaigns to the city asking for the change. More than 2,500 people signed an online petition, which—considering the population of Charlottetown is about forty thousand—is not nothing. The city still didn’t act.

Stances hardened, setting the tone for months of painful back and forth. In 2020, the Native Council of PEI formally requested that the statue be removed. That year, Mi'kmaw Elder Marie Knockwood, a Survivor who was physically and sexually abused at the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in Nova Scotia, sat on the bench next to John A. Macdonald and shared her story publicly. She called for the statue’s removal, telling the CBC that Macdonald has been “a thorn in the side of our people for many, many years.” Once again, the city dragged its feet.

Two weeks before the remains of 215 children were found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, the municipal council still voted to keep the statue, but with modifications, per the recommendations of Epekwitk Assembly of Councils, which represents the Abegweit and Lennox Island First Nations.

Another figure was going to be added to the display—either an Indigenous child or Elder—and the empty space next to Macdonald would be filled in to prevent people from taking selfies with him. A sign would be added too, to show “the devastating role that Sir John A. Macdonald played in the Indigenous history of Canada.” At the time, Councillor Mike Duffy— who represents the poshest neighbourhood in Charlottetown, Brighton—opposed even doing that, saying most of his constituents wanted the statue to stay where it was, unchanged.

But when the remains of the children were found in Kamloops, a vigil was held at the statue. Children’s shoes were placed at the foot of the monument as dozens came to mourn the kids. Faced with renewed and widespread public pressure, council changed its mind, and John A. Macdonald was unscrewed from the ground, loaded onto a truck, and driven away to an undisclosed location—his arm still reaching out, but embracing no one. 

Any cheering over his removal was muted in the wake of the ghastly discovery. Others decried the so-called erasure of history. A third group of people knew, warily: this was only the beginning of the conversation in the province.

Cities across Canada have grappled with how to respond to mounting public pressure to reevaluate the country’s founding through the lens of decolonization by renaming landmarks or places devoted to settlers like John A. Macdonald, who had direct roles in the attempted genocide of Indigenous Peoples. But on PEI, Macdonald’s legacy isn’t only visible in the occasional street sign or statue—it’s a veritable cottage industry, foundational to the Island’s identity, tourism industry and economic security. Taking down a statue is one thing; decolonizing the “Birthplace of Confederation” is quite another.

Do you want to travel by vehicle to PEI? Unless you take the ferry, you’ll need to take the Confederation Bridge. Want to go to the library? Try hitting up the Confed, as it’s known—the Confederation Centre Public Library. Excited to see Anne of Green Gables—The Musical? Well, that performance plays at the Confederation Centre of the Arts. The bike path spanning from the east to the west of the Island is called the Confederation Trail. Until recently, one of the most popular local beers on the Island was called Sir John A’s Honey Wheat Ale.

The references to the birth of the country are inescapable. Growing up there, it’s like being a lobster slowly cooking in a pot: you don’t even notice how often the Island sells itself to you. Virtually every tourist destination has one of three things: Anne of Green Gables, beaches, or a reference to the 1864 Charlottetown Conference, a pre-confederate meeting that led to the creation of Canada. 

Some of my first words as a toddler were “Province House” (or as I pronounced it, “Robin’s House”), the name of the legislature and historic site where the 1864 conference took place, down the street from where I grew up. 

Until 2020, Island teenagers, including myself fifteen years ago, were paid by the Confederation Centre of the Arts (which receives about a third of its annual operating budget from the federal government) to dress up as Fathers and Mothers of Confederation and do walking tours for tourists. On a summer day in Charlottetown, you were likely to encounter these folks—known as the Confederation players—wearing hoop skirts and 1860s garb, talking to each other as though it was still 1864, and playing croquet on the lawn of the George Coles building, next to Province House. At least a dozen of my high school and university friends have done this as a summer job. 

“There’s been a lot of cultural and economic and emotional attachment to the idea of Confederation,” says Edward MacDonald, a PEI historian and professor at the University of Prince Edward Island. In 2017, Canada passed a motion affirming Charlottetown as the Birthplace of Confederation: the culmination of nearly one hundred years of self-promotion by the city to call itself the place where Canada started. “It gives us a sense of grandeur. Prince Edward Island is the smallest, weakest, most inconsequential province in the Confederation,” says MacDonald. “There’s a kind of defensiveness, and I think there’s a desire for Prince Edward Island to have something to brag about on the national stage.”

Notably absent from the presentation and promotion of Charlottetown as the quaint, historic birthplace of Canada are the people who were here first: Mi'kmaq. On some level, this makes sense, because Mi'kmaq were not invited to the deliberations in 1864 that eventually led to the creation of Canada. But they were on the Island well before that: there’s oral history and archaeological evidence to suggest that Mi'kmaq have inhabited the Island—known in Mi'kmaw as Epekwitk—for at least ten thousand years. There are about 1,400 registered Mi'kmaq living on the Island. There are two bands— Abegweit and Lennox Island—and about six hundred people live on reserve, according to recent census data. 

In the 1700s, when British colonizers arrived, the Mi'kmaq signed a series of Peace and Friendship Treaties with the Crown, intended to be a roadmap to peaceful coexistence. At that time, the British agreed not to interfere with traditional hunting, fishing and harvesting, and Mi'kmaq agreed to cease defence against the British. Mi'kmaq never ceded their lands, though. The two groups were to run their own nations. In Epekwitk, as elsewhere in Canada, the British did not make good on their promises.

Chief Roderick “Junior” Gould of Abegweit First Nation—which is comprised of three reserves, located northeast of Charlottetown—was thinking about the colonial violence afflicted on his family when he saw the Macdonald statue in Charlottetown. He, like most if not all Mi'kmaq on Epekwitk, has a personal connection to the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in Nova Scotia, or the Indian Day Schools on PEI. Survivors describe enduring physical, emotional and sexual abuse at both institutions. Elders have been describing the horrors of those schools for years, unheard by settlers and settler politicians.

On the current affairs podcast Juku’e, Chief Gould described the dismissive way his father and other Elders in the community were treated during the 1990s. Gould’s father, Roddy Gould, attended the residential school in Shubenacadie. He describes seeing his father at the Benevolent Irish Society in Charlottetown, talking to lawyers who were there to get Survivors signed on to a class-action lawsuit. He turned to his friend and said, “‘They’re not here to hear dad’s story. They’re here for litigation,’” he recounts. “I was hurt for our Elders who wanted to get up and just be heard.” But decades later, they still weren’t heard: it took proof that thousands of children died before the city reacted and removed the statue. 

And someone could easily make a case that people are still only half-listening. We are awash in evidence that the Crown has always inflicted violence on Indigenous people across Canada. Yet PEI still profits from and celebrates being the Birthplace of Confederation. With flags flying at half-mast in honour of the children who never came home, how can PEI celebrate being the place where Canada was created?

“That’s the million-dollar question of the day that everyone’s really trying to get their head around,” says Bradley Cooper, a political advisor with the Native Council of PEI. Cooper, a Mi'kmaw man who has been an active advocate for the Indigenous community on PEI, says he knew it was only a matter of time before the statue would be removed. “And I knew that discussion after that was going to be, ‘How does Charlottetown, as the Birthplace of Confederation, reconcile with Sir John A. Macdonald and the foundation of Canada?’”

Patricia Bourque scored her dream gig in 2014, when she was hired on as a full-time photographer for the City of Charlottetown. It was a big year for the city, marking 150 years since the 1864 Charlottetown Conference. The year-long celebration included festivals, major concerts, sailing regattas and free family entertainment downtown all summer. 

Bourque, now fifty-one, has spent the last two decades raising her daughter and working various jobs to support her family. She had dreamed of becoming a professional photographer, so she accepted the job without hesitation. At first, she was awestruck. There were so many events with so many dignitaries. She was worried about getting people’s titles wrong. But then, as multiple events devoted to celebrating trailblazing settlers were unveiled, she felt a pit in her stomach that she could not quite identify.

She recalls photographing relatives of Samuel Holland, the surveyor who divided PEI into pieces of land that were dispersed in a land lottery to British settlers. Holland’s work ultimately destroyed the migratory lifestyle of Mi'kmaq, who traditionally moved around the Island seasonally, hunting either fish or game. “They made little speeches, and it just caught me off guard,” she says. “There was no acknowledgement of who was here first.”

Bourque is a Survivor of the Sixties Scoop. She is a Mi'kmaw woman who was taken from her home community of Abegweit First Nation soon after her birth. She spent nearly half of her life in a non-Indigenous family, unable to connect with her identity. Now she’s a member of the Lennox Island band, also on PEI, and an active member of the community.

Over the following years, Bourque found herself avoiding streets with colonial statues. In tiny Charlottetown, that required serious effort. There wasn’t just the John A. statue, but also a brand-new statue of William Henry Pope, one of the Island delegates to the conference, which was mounted on the wharf as part of the celebrations. On Great George Street, one block northwest from the provincial legislature and three blocks northeast of the wharf, there are two other Fathers of Confederation gesticulating to each other, apparently in full debate. 

And then, of course, there are the buildings: monuments to Confederation everywhere. The downtown core is truly about eight blocks, running from the waterfront to Grafton Street. In that space, there is Founders’ Hall (a multipurpose building now used as a market), the Confederation Centre of the Arts and the provincial legislature. Charlottetown is a concentrated, curated monument to the forming of Canada, a nation that, in the words of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, led to the attempted genocide of Bourque’s people, and even the erasure of her own identity, as someone who was removed from her family at birth. 

The daily reminders came to bother Bourque, but she tried to turn off the feeling, focusing on raising her daughter and putting food on her table. “You do have to shut it off, or it will consume you,” she says. 

Soon, her career as a visual artist flourished. Her work is centred around Mi'kmaw life: she describes her art as “driven by [her] love and passion for Mi'kmaw traditional cultural events,” and her portrait work features Mi'kmaq looking proud and strong in traditional regalia. She travelled across the country, meeting other Indigenous artists in the process, an experience she describes as “eye-opening” and an “awakening.” 

“But during introductions, you say where you’re from, and that’s when the comments started,” she says. She recalls an artist she met in Newfoundland coming up to her and mocking the idea of Charlottetown being the Birthplace of Confederation. “It’s a shame. You kind of feel shame. And you feel embarrassment as an Indigenous person when you’re travelling. Then, to come home, you can’t stop seeing it. It’s just there in your face.”

Bourque isn’t alone. But if it’s in his face, Keptin John Joe Sark has never looked away. The Mi'kmaw Elder is from the Lennox Island band and is a member of the Mi'kmaq Grand Council. He has been a vocal supporter of Mi'kmaq rights since the 1960s. When asked about all of the changes he’s affected over the years, he can’t remember them all. He calls me back a day later with a list. 

In the early nineties, he fought to change the name of a rural area southeast of Charlottetown called “Squaw Point” to “Alexandra Point.” In 2017, he returned his Order of PEI medal when settler politicians refused to support the removal of Jeffery Amherst’s name from the Fort Amherst national historic site. Amherst was a British army officer who orchestrated a plan to infect Indigenous people with smallpox-laced blankets. In 2018, the site was renamed Skmaqn, which means “the waiting place” in Mi'kmaw. Sark also successfully advocated for a high school sports team name to be changed from the “Redmen.” 

Sark remembers the costs of speaking out. When he worked to change the name of the high school sports team, he says his son was slapped across the face with a sneaker by a fellow student. “The guy said, ‘I don’t take orders from Indians,’” he says. Around that time, someone burned an effigy on their property, scaring his daughter and giving her nightmares. Still, he has never backed down from a fight.

Sark applauds the removal of the statue, but he has spent his entire adult life railing against the concept of Charlottetown being the birthplace of Canada. “I always call it the misconception of Confederation,” says Sark. “Because you had two European powers that decided that they were going to discover the country. But Canada was always here. And they’ve done it without the involvement of the Mi'kmaq nation or any other Indigenous nation in Canada, at the table during Confederation where they divided our lands into provinces.”

There’s also the not-so-small matter of what actually happened at the 1864 conference. At first, PEI didn’t want to have much to do with the idea of Confederation at all. The Charlottetown Conference was intended to be about the possibility of forming a union between New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and PEI. It wasn’t supposed to be the starting point for the joining of the British North American colonies. 

The conference was only held on PEI because Island delegates wouldn’t attend if it was held anywhere else, either because they didn’t care enough, or because they couldn’t afford to leave. Islanders also rejected membership to Canada for nine years after the conference was held. “But history is truly a fickle jade,” wrote Edward MacDonald in The Landscapes of Confederation. “Circumstance, accident, consequence—and the impeccable wisdom of hindsight—make the Charlottetown Conference a defining moment in the story of Canada.” 

The following is a well-tread story for people from PEI: when the delegates from other colonies arrived on the Island in September 1864, they discovered that folks didn’t much care that they were there. Instead, locals and the media were more interested in the circus, which was being held on the Island for the first time in twenty-one years. As such, there was almost no written correspondence about the 1864 conference. (The very same circus steals the spotlight to this day, as the newest hip restaurant in Charlottetown, Slaymaker & Nichols, is a nod to its name.)

Also glossed over in most history books is the fact that no Mi'kmaw delegates were invited to the meetings. In fact, the earliest reference from British history regarding the Indigenous population on PEI was simply denying their existence: PEI’s first governor, Walter Patterson, wrote to his superiors in 1772, claiming that there were “no Natives, or Indians, who either inhibit or claim any right to it.” He had been living on PEI for two years, but somehow failed to notice the several hundred Mi'kmaq on the Island. 

For decades, Islanders weren’t swayed by arguments to join Confederation, in part because they had no interest in a proposed railway that would join the rest of the Maritimes to Quebec. Canada also wouldn’t provide Islanders military protection from potential invading Americans. PEI only acquiesced in 1873, finally joining Canada as “an unwelcome alternative to bankruptcy,” wrote MacDonald, saying the Island was dealing with a debt crisis. 

And even if PEI had been the number-one cheerleader of the concept of Confederation, it may not have the best claim to the title of Birthplace of Confederation. The Charlottetown Convention was mostly about the idea of forming a nation. The details of how that would happen—i.e. the actual birth of a nation—were hammered out in the two conferences that followed: one in Quebec City one month later, in October 1864, and the London Conference starting in December 1866. Charlottetown is lucky that neither of those two locations is particularly interested in being known as the place where Canada was created.

As Edward MacDonald writes, it wasn’t until 1914 “that Charlottetown thought to capitalize on its happenstance role in the Dominion’s founding, and not until 1939 would it seriously begin to market itself as the Birthplace of Canada … Prince Edward Island has now practically turned its part in the making of Canada into an industry. It is a surprising outcome for a modest Maritime Union meeting that somehow got off-topic.”

Tourism matters on PEI. Farming, fishing and tourism are the big industries on the Island. Pre-pandemic, tourism accounted for about 6 percent of the province’s GDP. Tourism PEI suggests people go to Charlottetown to “feel the energy of this capital city with the perfect combination of historic and new architecture and accommodations.” 

The logo for Discover Charlottetown shows a top hat, a nod to the historic downtown, and a maple leaf tucked into the hatband, a nod to being the Birthplace of Confederation. “It’s been a staple of our tourism industry, one of the tropes that we have tried to market. Confederation has been a durable theme,” says MacDonald.

Much of the tourism promotion is centred around marketing the creation of Canada. It’s difficult to link exactly how much public money has been spent on celebrating PEI as the Birthplace of Confederation. But a report published by a consultant group for PEI 2014 Inc., the non-profit organization responsible for coordinating the 150th anniversary events, gives a sense of the big spending behind the celebrations. The mission for PEI 2014 Inc. was “to build pride and awareness among Island residents and visitors about Prince Edward Island’s important role as the Birthplace of Confederation,” the report says.

That year was all about selling Canada to tourists. In addition to concerts, galas and statues, it also produced a BuzzFeed-esque quiz, asking readers “Who’s Your Father?” and calling John A. Macdonald “quick-witted, stylish and charming!” while omitting any information related to his role in the creation of residential schools.

Some $26 million of public money was spent promoting and hosting the “yearlong celebration” of the creation of Canada. The consultant report says PEI made $2.50 back in tourism revenue for every dollar spent, and even more than that if tax revenue is figured into the equation, meaning at minimum, $67.6 million was injected into PEI’s economy (which, in 2014, had a GDP of about $5.2 billion.) 

In 2021, it’s not clear whether such an overtly colonial project would sell as well as it did in 2014. The quiz describing John A. Macdonald as stylish and charming is an uncomfortable relic of the past. And to be fair, in recent years, PEI has made some effort to include Mi'kmaw art and culture in its tourism packages. 

Some businesses are getting the message, too. Kevin Murphy is the president of Murphy Hospitality Group and the owner of some of PEI’s most popular restaurants, hotels and bars. In the nineties, he was part of the team that created the Sir John A. Macdonald beer through the Gahan House brewery, which is owned by Murphy Hospitality group. They were looking to tie a craft beer to the province and its historical significance. “So John A. was a natural (idea) at the time,” he says.

Murphy introduced the beer in Manitoba, where he received intense backlash, prompting him to pull it from shelves. It was still sold on PEI until recently, though. Two years ago, members of the Indigenous community approached Murphy to tell him that the name of the beer was unacceptable. In June, the brewery finally relaunched the beer under a new name. Murphy doesn’t think renaming it will cost them any business at all (“people drink that beer because of the liquid, not the name,” he says).

Murphy thinks moving forward will be a matter of finding the balance between telling Charlottetown’s story and giving credit to First Peoples and their culture as well. “Just myself, being educated on the wrongs that were against the Indigenous community … that just was wrong. And there’s no two ways about it.”

For now, the city is at an uncomfortable standstill, where signs and placards proudly proclaim it as the Birthplace of Canada, while the country grieves the five thousand (and counting) bodies of children found near former residential schools. Cooper, the political advisor to the Native Council of PEI, says navigating this conflict is a “difficult conversation” among members. 

Charlottetown’s mayor has started conversations with the province about how to move forward, but Cooper says many members of the Indigenous community are in a period of mourning and healing. He says the PEI government and Charlottetown City Council “only consult with the Native Council when pressure is applied and only as an afterthought. We feel that we are being excluded intentionally.” 

Keptin John Joe Sark would like to see all the buildings, statues, streets—everything—renamed to something without colonial implications. Sark, who has fought against how Canada represents itself for as long as he can remember, would even be in favour of renaming things with anti-colonial names. His first suggestion was changing the name of the Confederation Centre Art Gallery to the “Misconception of Canada” Art Gallery. For him, the constant reminders of colonialism are disrespectful and an inaccurate depiction of what really happened. A lack of celebration doesn’t mean ignoring history, he says. It means acknowledging it more truthfully. 

His views, however, are not mainstream. In a recent legislative committee meeting, the Mi'kmaq rights group L’Nuey and the Native Council of PEI called for more collaborative measures, such as adding Mi'kmaw words to street signs, a greater—and faster—incorporation of Mi'kmaw history into the public school curriculum, and opening a shelter for Indigenous men. 

“I always say reconciliation is a marathon and not a sprint,” says Senator Brian Francis, a former chief of Abegweit First Nation. “When we talk about Charlottetown being the Birthplace of Canada, it’s important to acknowledge the dark history upon which this country was built. Unfortunately, much of this history has been hidden, kept secret, despite the efforts of Indigenous people to share our stories and have our voices heard.” 

Still, Francis stopped short of calling for an end to celebrating Confederation. He says the first step ought to be acknowledging and accepting the harm done to Indigenous Peoples and credits the PEI government for recognizing September 30 as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation as a positive step toward that goal. 

Celebrating the Birthplace of Confederation is a multi-million-dollar industry built on propagating a Canadian myth that ignores the people who were here first, and continue to be here, resilient in the face of attempted genocide. Upending that industry would have economic consequences and destabilize how Islanders see themselves. But decolonization is about more than symbols and storytelling and representation. It’s also about taking a hard look at who benefits from those stories—and from land, resources and financial structures—and who is left behind.

In September 2021, Mi'kmaw artist Melissa Peter-Paul stood on the sidewalk, looking across the street to the empty spot where the John A. Macdonald statue used to be. She told the CBC that she used to dodge that corner, saying the sight of the statue was “too painful.” 

Now she’s been tasked by the city to reimagine the space. She’s been hired to design a crosswalk and she’s planning to create a design using the “Mi'kmaw curve,” which she calls an important symbol representing strength, community, balance and standing together. “Whatever (Macdonald) tried to do, we’re still here, so that’s the point of my art being here,” she told the CBC.

A visual artist herself, Bourque says she’s looking forward to seeing Peter-Paul’s finished work, and says there should be more like it downtown. “PEI, we’re more than Anne of Green Gables. We’re more than just foxes, red cliffs, mussels and oysters. I never see any representation of Mi'kmaq, of the First Peoples who’ve been here for over ten thousand years. And I’m getting kind of tired of it,” she says. “Talk to us. Work with us.”

Kate McKenna is an award-winning journalist and author raised on Prince Edward Island. She is based in Montreal, where she works as a reporter for the CBC.