- by Peter Small
Heated debate has broken out over calls by the Village’s BIA to remove the statue of 19th-Century magistrate and one-time gay icon Alexander Wood over his connection to a residential school.
The Church-Wellesley Village Business Improvement Area (BIA) has written to Toronto Mayor John Tory demanding the immediate removal of Wood’s 2.5-metre bronze statue, located at the northwest corner of Alexander and Church streets.
The BIA erected the statue in 2005, with assistance from the city. The BIA said it learned that Wood, a merchant and landowner who died in 1844, was a founding board member and long-time treasurer for “The Society for Converting and Civilizing the Indians and Propagating the Gospel among Destitute Settlers in Upper Canada.” One of the society’s main focuses was the development of Indian mission schools, according to the letter.
“One such mission, which was started in Sault Ste. Marie in 1832, shows a clear path from their initial school to the ultimate existence of the Shingwauk Residential School, which closed in 1978,” the BIA continues.
The discovery in May of the unmarked graves of 215 children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School has brought more awareness of the experiences of residential school survivors, according to the letter, signed by BIA chair Christopher Hudspeth.
This was followed in late June by an announcement from Cowessess First Nation that it had found 751 unmarked graves at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.
Across the country, more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were placed in over 130 government funded, church-run schools often against their parents' wishes, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Many were forbidden to speak their language and practice their own culture, were inadequately fed, denied proper medical care, and were physically, psychologically or sexually abused.
The BIA letter also references Alexander Wood’s alleged sexual assault of soldiers – an unproven rumour that made him an object of derision – referenced in bronze plaques on the statue. “It’s important that we take this moment to amplify the voices of victims,” the BIA states. “Taking power away from the perpetrators of sexual assault is important in this time.”
This is quite a fall for the prominent Upper Canadian who owned much of the land on which the Village sits and was hailed as a gay forefather when the BIA erected his statue 16 years ago.
The BIA’s call to remove the statue came two days after protesters toppled and beheaded a statue of Egerton Ryerson, at nearby Ryerson University, over his role in the design and implementation of the residential school system.
And on June 18, Indigenous people and allies cheered as a crane removed the statue of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, from its stone pedestal in his home town of Kingston, on orders of city council over his role as an architect of the residential school system. Across Canada, several Macdonald statues have been toppled or defaced.
A similar controversy erupted in Toronto as 14,000 people signed an online petition calling for the renaming of Dundas St., which commemorates Henry Dundas, (1742-1811), a British politician who worked to delay the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.
In response, city staff have recommended that an advisory committee of Black and Indigenous leaders be convened to seek community input on potential new names for Dundas St. and other city-owned assets bearing his name.
The petition has also led to a broader review of how the city commemorates public figures and events in place names, monuments and other civic assets, with city council directing the city manager to develop an overall commemorative framework for the city.
The BIA’s call to remove Wood’s statue has drawn sharp debate. Some support its disappearance as a symbol of a shameful colonial past. Others question whether Wood should be blamed for a residential school founded 29 years after his death.
Bryn Kai-Hendricks, an Indigenous 2SLGBTQ+ person raised in the Baptist church, strongly supports removing the statue. “The goal of the organization is in its name, and the end result is almost exactly its namesake because of the seeds that it sowed,” he said in a post on the CWNA Community Forum Facebook Group.
“It seems some wish to remain asleep while others are waking up to the realization that genocide isn’t the achievement we want to proudly display at the corner of Church and Alexander,” Kai-Hendricks added.
“The BIA got it wrong in 2005 and are allowed to change their mind now and call for the statue’s removal,” he wrote.
Kai-Hendricks also called for the renaming of Alexander St.
But Adam Zivo, a journalist who founded LoveisLoveisLove, an LGBTQ arts campaign, called the BIA reckless in its approach.
It seems that the Church Wellesley Village BIA didn’t do its research and wanted to “jump into the conversation,” Zivo told the CWNA. “It took up space in a way which spoke over residential school survivors and denied their own interpretation of their history.”
The Society to which Wood belonged raised money for the establishment of St. John’s Missionary to the Ojibway in 1832, which would later become the Shingwauk Residential School, Zivo wrote in his column in the National Post.
Zivo told the CWNA that Shingwauk residential school survivors on the whole appear to have a positive impression of St. John’s Missionary school because for them, as articulated in their educational materials, it was an example of Ojibway leadership -- despite the fact that, decades afterwards, it degenerated into something totally different.
“When the BIA published an inaccurate history without consulting Indigenous voices, it nullified Indigenous voices while claiming to speak for them,” he said.
Moreover, the BIA is portraying Wood with respect to his sexual orientation and the sex scandal that hurt his reputation in a way that “legitimizes homophobia” Zivo added.
We cannot conclusively say whether any sexual assault actually happened, but the Church-Wellesley BIA has uncritically labelled Alexander Wood a sexual deviant who committed the act, he said. “By uncritically engaging with that scandal and endorsing that narrative and without referencing the historical context here, I feel like they’ve been legitimizing a historical homophobic tactic.”
Zivo believes it would be inappropriate to remove the statue. “I think it’s important for us to understand historical context because we shouldn’t strictly judge past generations by today’s moral standards and we also should remember that morality is complicated. It’s not a black-and-white thing,” he said.
Krista McCracken, an historian who is interim director of the Residential Schools Centre at Algoma University, says the school established by Wood’s society was not directly linked to the founding of the Shingwauk Residential School, but is “part of the same trajectory.”
The society was linked more to a mission school or day school in that it paid for its first teacher, Anglican Rev. William McMurray, McCracken said in an interview.
Prior to the 1870s, there were many mission schools run by church organizations, but in the years that followed the relationship between the federal government and the churches became more formalized, leading to the development of residential schools, McCracken said.
Initially, the Garden River First Nations community, near Sault Ste. Marie, and its chief, Shingwaukonse, petitioned for a teacher, McCracken said. Chief Shingwaukonse had a vision for Indigenous education as an exchange of information between the Anishnawbe and white settler cultures, the historian said. “His vision was really lost through the residential school era,” McCracken said.
McCracken believes that ties between the society and the residential school are enough to start a conversation about whether Wood’s statue should be prominently displayed. “I think definitely that conversation needs to be led by Indigenous people,” McCracken added.
Local Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam says that the BIA can remove the statue at any time at its own discretion, since it commissioned and installed it, albeit with a cost-sharing grant from the city.
The councillor disclosed in a news release that she was on the BIA’s executive committee at the time of the installation of the statue, originally placed in the Village to mark the lands known as “‘Molly Wood’s Bush,’ the oldest and longest-running gay space and place in the world.”
She noted that Wood was called a “molly,” a derogatory and antiquated term for a homosexual. She added that “it is important to remember that even marginalized and persecuted communities are capable of furthering acts of oppression.”
The BIA declined to be interviewed for this article, but its chair, Hudspeth, told the Toronto Sun that the city paid for half of the statue and for the entirety of its installation, so the BIA feels the city has a responsibility to help in its removal.
Academic Shannon Brown wrote an article, published before this latest controversy, analyzing the forces behind the statue’s installation. Brown argues that its raising was infused with settler-colonial politics, an attempt by white middle-class queer activists to lay claim to belonging to the Canadian nation in a way that was problematic and exclusionary.
“And I think that needs to be as much a part of the conversation as Wood, the man,” Brown said in an interview.
Brown believes the discoveries of the unmarked residential school graves have made Canadians reassess their colonial past. “Something has shifted in our cultural moment to make people become a lot more aware and willing to rethink the history of these colonial figures,” said Brown, a PhD candidate at Queen’s University.
Brown believes it is past time to have a conversation about what to do with the statue. “And I would say it’s not just about who Wood was and what he did but why the statue was put up in the first place that should be informing our conversation about whether it should be moved or taken down.”
It’s important to think about how public installations reflect our priorities, the historian added. “Building names and street names and statues aren’t there to tell history,” Brown said. “They’re there to honour certain people, and as our ideas about who deserves to be honoured change, it’s really fitting that we think about whose names belong there.”