Bellevue House reopens to visitors after extensive work on both house and exhibits

The Bellevue House reopening event took place on Saturday, May 18, 2024. Photo by Jessica Foley/Kingstonist.

The grounds of Bellevue House were abuzz as the reopening of the historic residence of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, took place on Saturday, May 18, 2024.

The home has undergone an extensive renewal process after being closed in 2018 for work on the plaster ceilings. The grounds have been open, and free to visitors, every summer since, but this is the first time visitors have been able to head inside the over 150 year old building in six years.

The extended closure has also provided much-needed time for Parks Canada to reimagine the exhibits inside, in an effort to tell a broader, more inclusive story of Canada’s history, specifically centred around Sir John A. Macdonald, according to the federal agency.

On the lawn of the historic home, the Honourable Steven Guilbeault, Minister of Environment and Climate Change and Minister responsible for Parks Canada, Mark Gerretsen, Member of Parliament for Kingston and the Islands, along with R. Donald Maracle, Chief of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, announced the reopening of Bellevue House.

During his speech, Gerretsen joked that he was in nearly this same spot in 2019 when he announced funding for the renewal of Bellevue House and said the house would reopen in 2022 — so they’re only a little behind schedule. Kingstonist attended that media event, where Gerretsen shared details on the federal investment of $1.1 million to fund the major renovation to the house.

At the time, Parks Canada said it “is taking this opportunity to renew everything about Bellevue House – the building, the exhibits, and the story of Sir John A. Macdonald. With consultation from Indigenous groups, the exhibits and programming at Bellevue House will include more untold stories, and aim to provide a more holistic approach to the story of Sir John A. Macdonald and the snapshot of history that this site represents.”

The structural restoration of Bellevue House included the installation of a completely new roof, updating all electrical systems and wiring, repairs to the original plaster ceilings, restoration of the floors, and a refresh of all the walls, panelling, and mouldings, according to Parks Canada. This full renewal of the house and displays is the first time since 1967 that exhibits and programming in the house have undergone a complete review and revitalization.

According to a release from Parks Canada, dated Saturday, May 18, 2024,the new experience invites visitors to explore Sir John A. Macdonald’s role in forming the Dominion of Canada and his actions as prime minister, and to understand the lasting legacies of the Victorian system that existed in Kingston and in Canada from the 1840s through Confederation.

Parks Canada formed working groups with Indigenous partners, culturally diverse members of Kingston and area communities, historical and conservatory experts, and other collaborators to share stories and develop new exhibit content, Parks Canada explained, and as a result, the new presentation of the historic house provides a more inclusive interpretation of the past.

“The City of Kingston has a long and prominent place in Canada’s history. As the first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald is intimately connected to Canada’s past, which, like all history, is filled with conflict and struggle, as well as moments of inspiration and achievement,” said Gerretsen.

“I invite all Canadians to visit Bellevue House and to participate in one of the thought-provoking programs being offered. Exploring many viewpoints of Macdonald can lead to a greater understanding of issues that continue to influence Canadian society today.”

Through self-guided or guided tours and special events and programming, visitors are encouraged to engage with stories that reflect the diverse lives lived in the 1800s, including those of Indigenous, racialized, working-class, and upper-class individuals. Themes of wealth and power, incredible achievements and feats of engineering, and personal loss and tragedy are interwoven with issues such as colonial expansion, racism, misogyny, and exploitation, according to the release.

“Macdonald did not start residential schools, but under his leadership they expanded. Confederation did not create a country through friendship, peace, or mutual respect with the Indigenous Peoples that lived here long before Europeans knew of this continent. Macdonald expanded Canada while his government failed to meet treaty obligations with Indigenous Nations,” stated Chief Maracle.

“Macdonald supported oppression of Indigenous Peoples’ identity; their language, spirituality, the places they came from were stripped from them. Canadian history books were written to glorify colonialism and European development, devalued how Indigenous Peoples lived in harmony with the land, and did not address the injustices they experienced. The new exhibits at Bellevue House provide a place where truths of Macdonald are able to be fully discussed, and I hope many will choose to visit and learn more.”

Understanding Canada’s shared history is an ongoing process, and Bellevue House National Historic Site offers new opportunities for those interested in engaging with the past, Parks Canada noted.

The government organization invites everyone to visit Bellevue House National Historic Site this summer to experience history, engage with many voices, reflect on the complex legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald, and join the conversation about Canada’s first prime minister. Bellevue House is located at 35 Centre Street. Learn more and plan your visit at the Bellevue House website: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/lhn-nhs/on/bellevue.

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