Church-Wellesley BIA calls for removal of Alexander Wood statue

Business leaders want the city to take down the statue of the local gay icon over his ties to a missionary school for Indigenous people


A photo of the Alexander Wood statue with a rainbow garland
Neal Jennings / Flickr

The business improvement association in Toronto’s gay village wants the city to take down a statue of the historic figure considered the area’s founder “immediately and without hesitation.”

In an open letter posted on social media on June 8, the Church-Wellesley Village BIA chair Christopher Hudspeth and vice-chair Sagrario Castilla write that Alexander Wood was the treasurer and a founding board member of the Society for Converting and Civilizing the Indians and Propagating the Gospel Among Destitute Settlers in Upper Canada.

The letter is addressed to Mayor John Tory and was also sent to the area’s councillor, Kristyn Wong-Tam. It states that documents in the Toronto Public Library Archives containing the organization’s meeting minutes indicate Wood was the society’s treasurer for at least seven years in the 1830s.

It goes on to note the society financed “Indian Mission Schools,” particularly the St. John’s Mission in Sault Ste. Marie, which the letter calls a “a clear path” to the Shingwauk Indian Residential School, operated by the Anglican Church and Canadian government from 1873 to 1970.

“The recent findings at the former Kamloops Residential School of 215 children in unmarked graves has brought more awareness to the experience of residential schools survivors,” they write in the letter. “We acknowledge the truth of the role Alexander Wood and others played in the development of these schools and the trauma they caused.

“Leaving the statue in place would send a clear message to our 2-Spirit community that racism is being allowed to continue – and in fact being iconized – in Toronto.”

Earlier this week, a statue of Egerton Ryerson was torn down on the nearby Ryerson University campus following a protest.

Indigenous students and professors are also demanding the university change its name over Egerton Ryerson’s role in the design and implementation of Canada’s residential school system, which removed hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children from their families and forced them to give up their traditions, language and culture. The 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission called this government policy “cultural genocide.”

The Canadian government is now under pressure to make good on the commission’s recommendations after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation’s leadership announced the preliminary discovery of the remains of Indigenous children buried in an unmarked mass grave on the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, BC.

In addition to removing the statue, the BIA’s letter outlines a total of seven action items, including publicly apologizing for erecting it, acknowledging damage done to Indigenous culture and replacing the statue with a project that is “2-Spirit advised” by October.

It also states the BIA’s board will commit to take the city of Toronto’s Confronting Anti-Black Racism training, as well as Indigenous teachings on racism and residential schools.

NOW has reached out to the city for comment.

Who was Alexander Wood?

The $200,000 bronze statue by artist Del Newbigging was originally commissioned by the Church-Wellesley Village BIA, which had a different chair at the time. It was unveiled at the corner of Alexander and Church streets in 2005 and its plaque refers to Wood as a “gay pioneer.”

Born in Scotland, Wood was a wealthy and well-connected merchant and public official. He arrived in Upper Canada in the late 1700s when what is now Toronto was known as York.

His time as a respected local leader ended in 1810. Then a magistrate, Wood claimed a woman named Miss Bailey came to him, said she was raped and had scratched her attacker’s penis. To find the culprit, he set about personally inspecting the genitals of several men.

Wood’s story scandalized elite society. A judge scuttled an investigation into the magistrate’s abuse of his position on the condition he leave Upper Canada. However, he returned two years later and bought the land that now forms the Village.

The controversy earned Wood the derogatory nickname “Molly Wood” but his sexual orientation has never been confirmed. The plaque underneath the statue references the “homophobic scandal,” as well as Wood’s time spent serving as an executive and treasurer on “nearly every society in York.”

Hudspeth tells NOW he became aware that Wood was treasurer for the missionary society last week after the BIA’s minute-taker, Margaret Wagner, came across documents while researching in the Toronto Public Library’s archives.

In the society’s 1834 minutes, she noticed a connection to the Anglican missionary William McMurray, who opened the missionary day school in Sault Ste. Marie for children from the Garden River First Nation. The site would eventually become home to the Shingwauk Indian Residential School.

“It was a little sickening to read this stuff to be honest, and to realize we still had a symbol to someone who was a founding member of this organization,” says Hudspeth.

He says he spent the past weekend skimming the documents on the library’s online archives before bringing a successful motion to the BIA’s June 8 board meeting demanding the city take down the statue.

“We felt it was important to not sit on this information and we made it public as soon as we possibly could,” he says. “I’ve heard a lot of response from people that it’s long overdue, so I hope the city will take it into account and remove it as quickly as possible and put something else in place.

“We’re not trying to erase the history,” he adds, suggesting the statue could go to a museum for educational purposes. “We are very open to having the story be known so that we don’t repeat it again.”

“A clear path”

Krista McCracken, the interim director of the Residential Schools Centre at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, tells NOW the St. John’s Mission was a “definitely a precursor” to the Shingwauk Indian Residential School.

McCracken says the Shingwauk family had advocated with Upper Canada Lieutenant Governor John Colborne to send teachers to Garden River First Nation, leading to Wood’s society financing McMurray’s school, as well as the eventual arrival of Edward F. Wilson, the residential school’s founding principal.

“They didn’t want a residential school,” McCracken says. “They wanted a teacher that could help support education in their community but still retain their own culture and identity.

“It would’ve been like day schools that were run across the country,” they add. “The students went during the day and were home at the end of the day. There really was an emphasis on learning English and the Christianization of the students who were there.”

However, McCracken says there were mixed feelings among their staff when they showed them the BIA’s letter. Whereas some see the mission schools as a direct precursor to residential schools, not all historians agree the attachment is so close.

“Prior to the confederation period in the 1870s and the 1880s, there were missionaries who were doing assimilation work all across Canada but it was not as directly tied to the Canadian government,” they explain, noting mission schools were more localized in the 1830s compared with the federal residential school policy that came later and involved formalized agreements with religious organizations to run the schools.

“Listening to Indigenous community members and taking the lead from Indigenous community members is really important,” McCracken says. “They need to be the ones who are making decisions around what stays and what doesn’t stay. That being said, listening to community can take time and I think it’s really important to give the time and space needed to have robust conversations around this history.”

What to do next?

Keith McCrady, the executive director of Toronto-based 2-Spirited People of the 1st Nation, says he heard the news about the Wood statue, but has not been approached by the BIA to advise on a way forward.

With 400 direct members, he says the organization is the easiest place to connect with a large part of the Two-Spirit community in the city.

“There’s a way to consult with Two-Spirited community in a meaningful, traditional way to talk about what they should do, if that’s what they really want,” he says.

McCrady says the Kamloops discovery has stirred up a lot of feelings of frustration and anger, but hopes conversations happening now provoke meaningful change in how people in Toronto and Canada work with Indigenous and Two-Spirit people.

“Canada is going to discover more and it’s going to hopefully create some positive change that is a long-time coming,” he says. “To me, this is a first step in thinking what we can do differently. We know that in LGBTQ2S, the 2S is always forgotten.”

A new statue may be one option to replace Wood – and it’s something the community has asked for in the past.

In 2007, 2-Spirited People of the 1st Nation published a report on practices for HIV prevention and safer sex among Two-Spirit men that recommended erecting a public statue dedicated to a Two-Spirit figure from history.

A statue would not only educate the wider public about the history and traditions of Two-Spirit people, but serve as positive reinforcement and help reverse forces of colonization, which “applied calculated methods to instill homophobia in the Aboriginal community and destroy the dignity and respect of Two-Spirit People,” the report states.

Many do not understand Two-Spirit people, who carry two spirits – male and female – and live on a spectrum of gender identities that have historically existed outside rigid European social constructs.

Official Pride organizations have not always represented Two-Spirit people well either, McCrady adds.

“We have our own Pride celebrations. We have many events happening this month through our own community because it’s not always found so easily or welcoming in other communities,” he explains. “It’s Indigenous month, and Pride month, and I really think that it’s a great time to highlight Two-Spirited people as vibrant parts of both  communities.”

Reassessing a “gay pioneer”

So why is Alexander Wood considered a gay icon in Toronto?

“The big tie was that he owns the land where the Village now currently sits,” Hudspeth says. “There’s no evidence that he ever referred to himself as gay. It was just the sexual scandal that put that into people’s heads, as far as I can see.”

Hudspeth, who was not part of the BIA in 2005, says he never thought the 1810 scandal was a “particularly positive” one to highlight with a statue and plaque.

The BIA leaders also reference the 1810 scandal in their letter to the city, writing that the statue immortalizes sexual assault. “It’s important we take this moment to amplify the voices of victims,” the letter reads.

“The way the story reads on both the plaque and out in the world is that it somehow ties him to being a gay man,” he adds. “In my mind, the scandal just shows how historically, and even in recent history, senior officials used their power. It was inappropriate, even at that time.”

There have also been suggestions that Wood fabricated the rape case story for fear of being outed as gay.

In The Toronto Book Of Love, which explores the city’s history through the lens of love, romance and sex, author Adam Bunch notes that Wood’s personal life, and what he actually looked like, remains a mystery.

In regards to the 1810 scandal, Bunch writes that it’s hard to know “whether Wood made an innocent but terrible mistake, abused his position, or concocted an ill-conceived cover story for consensual sexual relationships with men who were quick to distance themselves once the story went public.”

@KevinRitchie

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