Egan: Airport's Sir John A. bench — an 'emotional trigger' for Indigenous Peoples — hauled awayAuthor of the article: Kelly Egan
Publishing date: Aug 26, 2021 • 5 hours ago • 3 minute read • 6 Comments
A file photo of the bench with statues of Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Georges-Etienne Cartier at the Ottawa International Airport.
An alert visitor to the Ottawa International Airport asks a timely question.
What happened to the sculptured bench featuring Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir George-Étienne Cartier, which for years was in a prime location in the terminal’s main arrivals area?
Well, there is news on these bronzed Fathers of Confederation. The bench is gone, removed after repeated complaints about Sir John A., an architect of Canada’s residential school campaign — so disastrous Indigenous communities are still dealing with the human and cultural fallout.
After what sounds like a steady stream of objections, starting in about 2016 with the release of the landmark Truth and Reconciliation report, the airport authority removed the bench in the fall of 2020 and put it into storage.
(Airline traffic was so pandemic-quiet, possibly the disappearance went unnoticed. There was, too, an online petition to send the piece packing.)
“The Authority’s reflection on the matter considered adding context to the sculpture with a plaque or other learning materials that could present Macdonald’s contributions to the fabric of Canada — both positive and negative,” responded Krista Kealey, the authority’s vice president of communications.
“We concluded that, as an airport operator, we do not have the mandate or capacity to take on such an important task. The decision was made to seek a more appropriate home for the sculpture, where such context and explanation could be appropriately provided.”
In June 2021, she added, it was donated to the Canadian Museum of History.
Sir John’s removal, of course, leads to the other obvious question: what to do about the airport’s formal name, the Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airport?
(In its day-to-day branding, the authority uses the less cumbersome Ottawa International Airport.)
Kealey says the authority “would be open to a discussion” about a name change but points out the federal government assigned the double moniker and would need to take the lead in any remake.
The removal of the bench “as a gesture of reconciliation” — in which Sir John was casually seated and Cartier purposely standing — is hardly surprising given the way Macdonald memorials have been treated since the discovery of fresh horrors in the country’s residential school history.
His statues have been vandalized, attacked, and taken down from many public realms across the country, his name stripped from buildings.
And not only is Ottawa a hub for Indigenous travellers with frequent business in the capital but, as Kealey points out, the airport is home to a native-owned airline, Canadian North.
“Our consultation with representatives from Canadian North confirmed that the sculpture was an emotional trigger for passengers and employees who may have been impacted by historical government policies. They offered their full support for its removal.”
The sculpture-bench, which included a plaque, was designed by Quebec artist Jérémie Giles and installed in about 2007. Travellers frequently took photos on the bench, as it visually signalled the importance of politics and history in Canada’s capital.
It’s pretty obvious we aren’t finished with modern-day right-sizing the memorials and tributes to Sir John A., Canada’s first prime minister, who lived from 1815 to 1891.
The National Capital Commission is reviewing the use of his name on the old Ottawa River or Western Parkway. It was changed, out of the blue, by the Harper government in 2012 and is becoming more ill-fighting with each passing month.
Not only is it a short distance from Pimisi Station (taken from the Algonquin word for eel) but it brushes by Pindigen Park, done in collaboration with the local Anishinaabe communities of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg and the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan.
And now the city’s new central library, a stone’s throw away, is to be named Ādisōke, an Anishinaabemowin phrase that means storytelling. In other words, the SJAM finds itself in the middle of an Indigenous renaissance around LeBreton Flats.
The NCC reports it is taking the fall and winter months to “continue to develop its comprehensive framework for Indigenous partnerships” — whatever that means — and is looking at a consultation plan.
But, obviously, it would be a shock if any consultation with Indigenous groups came up with a proposal to keep Sir John A.’s name on a road that was built 70 years after he died and to which he has no particular connection. (Unlike the Ontario-Quebec bridge, the Macdonald-Cartier, which, on an inter-provincial level, at least makes sense.)
So the recasting of Sir John A., in bronze and asphalt, continues.