They can be found everywhere—the familiar blue and gold historical plaques that commemorate famous people and historical events in Ontario. The Ontario Heritage Trust has erected over 1.300 of these plaques across Ontario. Because of sensitivities around the way history is interepreted these days the Trust has found it necessary to post on its website “the Trust acknowledges that many of the plaques are exclusionary in their interpretation and include outdated terminology related to culture, race and gender.” There is no mention of removing any of the plaques, however.
On a brilliant sunny day in July 1988, one of these plaques was unveiled on the York Boulvard outlook over Burlington Bay, just over the Burlington side of the High Level Bridge. The occasion was the renaming of the bridge for Thomas Baker McQuesten, a Hamilton politician who was responsible for the redevelopment of what was called the Northwestern Entrance to Hamilton—a project that involved the creation of the Rock Garden, massive landscaping along York Boulevard and the erection of the bridge, designed by renowned Canadian Architect John Lyle, and yes, the steps leading to the outlook. McQuesten was a member of the Hamilton Parks Board which commissioned a competition for the redevelopment of the area. Later he would go on as Minister of Highways to oversee the building of the Queen Elizabeth way, three international bridges and many works at the Niagara Parks.
What added a regal touch to the occasion was the fact that the plaque was to be unveiled by none other than HRH Princess Margaret who was on an official visit to Canada. Hamilton’s Mayor at the time was the late Bob Morrow, and nobody knew how to stage special events for visiting dignitaries better than Morrow. He was an expert on protocol. And so on the morning of July 11. Children were let out of school and issued little Canadian and Union Jack flags. They formed am honour guard along the walkway from York Boulvard to the stairs leading to the lookout. A brass ensemble was playing music. A large crowd had gathered, most of them dressed to the nines. Some of the women wore hats.
A limousine pulled up and out came Mayor Bob and Her Royal Highness—wearing a flowered dress and sporting a luxurious chestnut coiffure. He escorted her up the stairs. There were a few speeches. Bob Morrow invited Princess Margaret to unveil the plaque. She pulled the tassel as the brass ensemble blew a little fanfare and the plaque to McQuesten was there for posterity to see. As one wag later observed, “a more disinterested tassel-puller you could not find.” The striking memory of a civic luncheon that followed was HRH sitting at the head table, smoking a cigarette, that, with its holder had to be a foot long, seemingly ignoring everybody.
Fast forward three decades and what remains of the plaque is only its base and a four-foot pice of pipe sticking up from it. Thieves have apparently hacksawed the plaque and sold it for scrap. Flamborough-Glanbrook MPP Donna Skelly’s office has brought the matter to the attention of the Ontario Heritage Trust and a response is expected within 14 days.
It is hoped the plaque can be restored, although in the wake of the Sir John A Macdonald statue vandalization, the Egerton Ryerson erasure and the Henry Dundas debate, the whole business of commemoration of any historical figure may fall into disuse, as history continues to be re-written and re-interpreted.