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Pitch to erect Indigenous artwork in front of McDougall Cottage denied by city's heritage committee

Region of Waterloo hoped to feature Indigenous artwork in front of historic cottage as part of reconcilliation process
Screenshot (54)
A rendering shows the positioning and size of a sign proposed for the front of McDougall Cottage featuring Indigenous artwork.

An effort to “spark important conversations” about Waterloo region’s Indigenous history and expand programming opportunities at McDougall Cottage failed to find support from the city’s municipal heritage advisory committee at Thursday's meeting.

City of Cambridge staff recommended MHAC approve the Region of Waterloo’s request to erect a freestanding, 3.46-metre sign on the right side of the 1858 cottage and museum on Grand Avenue.

The proposed sign would feature Indigenous artwork designed to draw attention to the museum and draw visitors inside where staff would use it as an opportunity to speak about Indigenous history and culture, explained Michelle Bartlett, supervisor of historic sites for the region at McDougall Cottage.

Traditionally the cottage has focused on the Scottish settlers that came to Galt, she said.

“This is an important story, but it represents only a part of the area’s history and permits the cottage a very narrow focus for interpretation and programming.”

“In addition to being a stunning piece of public art, this installation is intended to be a conscious disruption of the landscape of McDougall Cottage which will convey a visual acknowledgement that this is the traditional land of the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Neutral People.”

Bartlett cited one of the Truth and Reconciliation calls to action for inspiring the project, namely the strategy to support Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists to “undertake collaborative projects and produce works that contribute to the reconciliation process.”  

“Giving us a few feet of the view of the brickwork at McDougall Cottage is arguably a small price to pay for the opportunity to make an important step toward Truth and Reconciliation in Cambridge,” she said. 

But only councillor Pam Wolf liked the idea. 

The rest of the committee expressed the same concerns about obscuring the historic facade and the Scottish masonry and granite stonework that makes it unique. 

MHAC chair John Oldfield said he has no problem with content of the sign but couldn't abide by its placement.

“I think obscuring the front of this building is entirely inappropriate ... and I’m surprised the region is asking quite frankly,” he said. 

The region’s request is also three times the size of what’s allowed in the bylaw.

“What do we say to someone who’s playing by the rules...when you’re asking us to approve one that’s three times the size?” Oldfield asked.

He suggested the region instead consider placing it in the nearby sculpture garden, or the backyard of the cottage where it would capture the interest of pedestrian traffic.

“You mention this would be wonderful art, but you don’t even know what’s going on there yet so I don’t know how you could determine whether it’s good or bad,” he said, “I don’t care if it’s a picture of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Stanley Cup winning team from 1967, this isn’t the place to put it.”

Nelson Cecilia agreed and suggested the region consider positioning the sign perpendicular to the cottage, next to the driveway, perhaps providing an opportunity for artwork to appear on both sides.

Bartlett told the committee the site lacks sufficient room to place the sign anywhere else on the property since it would block a pathway that surrounds the cottage.

The motion was defeated in a near unanimous vote.