You can’t escape John A. Macdonald − or Sir John A., as some locals affectionately call him – in the quaint Victorian streets of Kingston.

More than 125 years after his death, Canada’s first Prime Minister remains a hometown hero in this small city east of Toronto. It was in Kingston that Macdonald grew up, made his bones as a lawyer and served as a member of Parliament for decades.

The city has made the most of the association. Visitors arrive on the Macdonald-Cartier Freeway and proceed downtown on John A. Macdonald Boulevard. They can visit the Macdonald statue in City Park, see his portrait in City Hall, take pictures with the decommissioned “Spirit of Sir John A.” locomotive and visit both his former house and gravestone. A public school bears Macdonald’s name, as does the Queen’s University law-school building.

In recent years, though, Macdonald’s legacy has come under fresh scrutiny. His racist attitudes and brutal policies toward Indigenous people and Asian immigrants have forced a national reassessment of the man – part of a global trend toward questioning public memorials of historic figures with stains on their record, from Thomas Jefferson to Cecil Rhodes.

It is now better understood, for example, that Macdonald was an architect of the country’s residential-school system, and backed a policy of withholding food aid from Indigenous communities “until the Indians are on the verge of starvation.” He also opposed Chinese immigration and voting rights on the grounds that they threatened Canada’s “Aryan” character.

Perhaps nowhere has the job of looking at Macdonald in this new light been more involved, or more agonized, than in Kingston. For the past year, the municipal government has been working with the Indigenous-run advisory firm First Peoples Group on public consultations into how it should handle Macdonald’s memory in a more honest and “inclusive” way. That has led to a forum for online comments, in-person workshops and, most recently, a free lecture with prominent historians.

It hasn’t always gone smoothly. Macdonald is so much a part of local identity that many people feel “the city is being personally attacked” by criticism of their favourite son, said Kay Langmuir, a Kingston realtor and former journalist. “It’s kind of a blow to the city’s self-esteem.”

Mayor Bryan Paterson has tried to take the sting out of the debate by vowing not to remove any statues or rename any tributes. He prefers the idea of rewriting informational plaques or erecting new statues of Indigenous leaders.

“We have an opportunity to add to history, not take away from it,” said Mr. Paterson during an interview in his office, which is filled with Macdonald memorabilia such as a hockey puck bearing the leader’s jaunty image and a desk that once belonged to the former PM. “That, I think, is how you model, going forward, how to address this at times very divisive and emotional issue. You add.”

Some feel that in trying to placate nostalgists, the city is moving too cautiously. Queen’s University historian Laura Murray is among them.

“We know that when Indigenous people see that statue, they find it hurtful,” she said. “We know that it’s a legacy we don’t want to participate in.”

Macdonald statues have been vandalized across the country in recent years, from Montreal to Regina, while the mayor of Victoria controversially had one removed from the steps of City Hall last year as a gesture of “reconciliation.”

The towering bronze likeness of Macdonald in Kingston’s City Park has likewise been a flashpoint. In January, 2013, at the height of the Idle No More movement, a protester spray-painted the words “Murderer,” “Colonizer,” and “This is Stolen Land” on the structure’s pedestal, and since then, the statue has regularly attracted protests and vandalism on Macdonald’s Jan. 11 birthday. (This year, the city hired security to monitor the site.)

The renovation of Kingston’s historical memory has already claimed one place name. Sir John’s Public House, a downtown bar and former site of Macdonald’s law office, rechristened itself simply The Public House, after pressure from activists and patrons last year.

But the city’s unwillingness to rename or remove public memorials has altered the character of the debate. At a public discussion on Tuesday featuring the historians Christopher Moore and Charlotte Gray and the Indigenous author Lee Maracle, a consensus seemed to emerge that adding more detail to plaques about Macdonald and memorializing local Indigenous figures would be preferable to taking anything down.

“We have decisions to make. We have things to think about. We have to listen to each other,” said Ms. Maracle, a member of the Sto:lo Nation. “And that doesn’t mean exterminating anyone’s hero.” (She added acerbically, in reference to Macdonald’s notorious binge-drinking: “I want to remember that a drunken sot did this to us.”)

The event was more easy-going than most conversations about Macdonald these days, and even seemed to produce an epiphany or two. Hugh Mackenzie, general manager of a local tourism company, said the discussion of Macdonald’s mixed legacy had nudged him to review how the company presents the Old Chieftain in its tours.

“We might treat Macdonald with a bit of that Disney-esque narrative,” he said. “So I made notes tonight on how that could evolve.”

Another apparent breakthrough came when two names emerged over the course of the evening as possible candidates to stand alongside “John A.” in the city’s pantheon. One was the Peacemaker, who, according to oral tradition, helped forge the Haudenosaunee Confederacy among previously warring nations around the Great Lakes. The other was Molly Brant, a Mohawk woman who played an important role on the British side of the American War of Independence and later settled in Kingston.

Amid the compromises and warm feeling, though, hard realities remained. Kathy Brant, a resident of the nearby Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, balked at the idea of balancing out Macdonald with Indigenous statuary, because glorifying individuals in lifelike bronze is not part of her cultural tradition.

“It seems boastful, and we are not,” she said. “We are more humble than boastful.”

Even if statues were an appropriate response to the controversy, she argued, they would be a low priority in a city that neglects other, more basic services for Indigenous people. For example, Ms. Brant noted, there is no designated place for people to perform spiritually significant smudging ceremonies when they wish.

“My ancestors are saying, ‘Why do you want to waste space with a sculpture when you can’t even find space to pray,’ ” she said.

If the boulevards and schools and tourist attractions are going to remain, they may have to change. Dr. Murray, the Queen’s history professor, would especially like to see one alteration made to the Macdonald statue in City Park: She believes it would send a powerful message to get rid of the statue’s pedestal, which stands about ten feet tall and looms over visitors.

“You just bring him down to ground level,” she said. “And you leave him there.”

The Globe and Mail, September 29, 2019