Misgivings about politically motivated monuments in precious public spaces

John Geddes questions a sculpture to satisfy Turkey, and a unnecessary one for the War of 1812

by John Geddes

Living a short stroll from the banks of the wide Ottawa River lets me secretly keep in touch with the romance of our history that I first felt as a kid. If you don’t know what I mean, you might get an inkling from the way David Hackett Fischer, in his acclaimed biography Champlain’s Dream, describes the world the great explorer was entering when he first paddled my river in 1613. “The countryside was beautiful and fertile,” Fischer writes. “But there was a sense of danger in it. Onondaga and Oneida war parties were active in this region.”

So when I tell you that I took a wooded path down toward the river yesterday to see an imposing new monument that’s recently been erected near the water, you might guess it’s a memorial to that era of exploration, or to the native way of life irrevocably changed by it, or even to the fortune-making feats of the lumber barons who came later. But no. The substantial wood-and-metal sculpture, a sort of hollow half-sphere, marks the spot where a Turkish military attaché was shot when his car was stopped at a nearby red light in 1982.

The reason the Canadian government gave Turkey such a prime location to permanently mark the assassination, responsibility for which was claimed at the time by an Armenian terrorist group, is diplomatic. Back in 2006, Stephen Harper’s government recognized the genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during World War I. The Turkish government was upset by that gesture. The unveiling and dedication of the new memorial apparently helps heals the rift.

I don’t ask anyone to share my particular attention to a patch of parkway near an intersection by the Ottawa River, but there’s good reason for any Canadian to worry about the willingness of the government to give over public spaces in your capital to permanent reminders of passing political preoccupations. And this becomes much, much more serious when the space in question isn’t in my neighbourhood, an easy bike ride west of Parliament Hill, but a precious, prominent slope on the lawns of Parliament itself.

Earlier this month, the National Capital Commission put out a formal call to artists interested in designing a War of 1812 monument to be built, of all places, beside Parliament’s East Block—that gloriously glowering pile of neo-Gothic atmosphere—where the new thing will crowd an elegant old statue of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Such a monument would be an indelible reminder of the Harper government’s curious determination to popularize the 1812 border conflict as a spur to patriotism. You’ve seen the T.V. ads. But they won’t be around forever.

Even if the War of 1812 does it for you, this isn’t the place for such a monument. There are 15 statues around the Hill, mostly prime ministers in bronze. (I’m partial to Borden, who stands in the posture of a guy saying, “Go ahead, punch me in the stomach, see if I flinch.”) Beyond sundry PMs, there’s the Famous Five (marking rights for women), a couple of monarchs (can’t be helped, I suppose), and good old Baldwin and Lafontaine (patron saints of our pre-Confederation push for responsible government).

All in all, a fine array, and popular with throngs of tourists. Note that these varied figures, beyond their personal accomplishments, in their different ways represent how we’ve come to govern ourselves. They stand, after all, around the very heart of our democracy. These figures fit together, telling a story of political history There’s nothing remotely like a war memorial on the Hill, except perhaps the rather unobtrusive plaques to fallen police officers, inaugurated by Prime Minister Jean Chretien in 1994.

The War of 1812 monument threatens to be far more conspicuous and incongruous. The proposed location overlooks Confederation Square and the National War Memorial. Indeed, the proximity to that somber landmark—which originally commemorated only the First World War, but was later rededicated to memorialize every Canadian who has died for this country—raises an obvious question. Why should the War of 1812 have a separate place when a single, splendid memorial suffices for all the rest?

If it’s necessary to spell out that the national memorial also stands for battles that preceded Confederation, then declare it so. But that, I’m afraid, wouldn’t satisfy the current government’s emphasis on what happened back in 1812, just as, say, a statement wouldn’t have done as much as a sculpture to satisfy Turkey.

Of course, neither the impulse to spin history nor the imperative to do diplomacy need be, in itself, crass or misguided. But that’s no reason to allow either to become a pretext for cluttering the national capital’s landscape or, worse still, diluting the experience of visiting Parliament Hill. The design concepts for the War of 1812 memorial are slated to be presented to a jury this coming March. There’s still plenty of time to call the whole thing off, or at least find a more suitable location.




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Misgivings about politically motivated monuments in precious public spaces

  1. “Why should the War of 1812 have a separate place when a single, splendid memorial suffices for all the rest?”

    It might be interesting to know if there was any lobbying for this monument, or did it just spring out of the fertile partisan imagination of the Harper PMO? I find it a travesty that such a project can go forward without an arms length board of historians having some meaningful input. Or at least a Parliamentary one. What’s if going to be if the NDP do get in? A sculpture depicting the Winnpeg riots of 1919 in the foyer?

    • duhh,,…1912…giant iceberg….luxury cruiser….one of the largest grossing movies….Celine…Leonardo!

      Throw a polar bear and harp seal (not clubbed or being eaten) on top of the berg to keep the Greens happy.

      Perfect.

    • It might be interesting to know if there was any lobbying for this monument, or did it just spring out of the fertile partisan imagination of the Harper PMO?

      I didn’t, but personally I’d have lobbied for such a monument had the opportunity presented itself.

      • I thought you might:)
        Still, like JG’s argument myself. We already have a national war memorial.

      • Thieving bastard. I don’t tweet so i guess i’ll have to steal something off his blog post.

        • The only explanation is he put it in his notes, then put it in his tweet.

  2. Better brace yourself for the massive and magnificent obelisk celebrating, even deifying, the nation’s 22nd Prime Minister, coming to a prime piece of parliamentary lawn near you.

  3. I can’t really say that I’m entirely uncomfortable with the 1812 horn-tooting, even if the driver for it is juvenile. After all, the Canadian project stretches long before and long after 1867 and the War of 1812 does serve as one of those markers in the project.

    I’m always happy to see us acknowledge and embrace our history, get more people interested in it, embrace and learn from those missteps and acts of malevolence, and perhaps even learn to take a little pride in those good decisions and acts. Whether it comes from the grand events, what are *perceived* to be grand events, or the specialized social (micro)histories.

    For some, the interest in the event will outlast the simple contemporary political and ideological motivations for official commemoration and perhaps they will be motivated to write an updated account.

    Of course, when the PM is long gone and the social appetite/tolerance for 1812 has dissipated, any 1812 memorial built can be relocated elsewhere. Several have been over the years (we’re not too interested in the Boer War or Thomas Ahearn, locally, for example), and others will continue to be moved in the future.

  4. ” There’s nothing remotely like a war memorial on the Hill, except perhaps the rather unobtrusive plaques to fallen police officers, inaugurated by Prime Minister Jean Chretien in 1994.”
    How about that little thing known as the Peace Tower in the middle of the Centre Block? As I recall, that was built to commemorate the soldiers lost in the First World War and also houses the Books of Remembrance carrying theirs and all soldiers lost fighting for Canada. And to call the War of 1812 a “border conflict” is more than a little silly seeing as if we’d lost said “border conflict” we’d be arguing about monuments in Washington, not Ottawa.

    • The Americans didn’t want to take over Canada, contrary to what Harper wants you to think. They had the opportunity to whip the British on several occasions, most notably when they burnt down the Governor’s mansion in York and routed the garrison; each time, they retreated voluntarily (i.e. they were not driven out).

      And while it’s easy to say we’d be American right now, the fact is that all along the Canadian/American border, the region was populated with families that were from both places. It was an extremely porous border, and truth be told, very few people on the border really wanted a war since it would have cut them off from loved ones across the waters (and it did for many long years).

      You are right about the Peace Tower to a point, but it was always intended to commemorate all of Canada’s war dead–but only since Confederation. And frankly, it’s disingenuous to start isolating 1812 as part of our national narrative, since there was no such thing as “Canada” as we understand it today, and that Canada of 200 years past has very little in common with confederation-era Canada.

  5. I guess it’s because I’m a history buff and I wish we’d generally celebrate our history more (and I also recently finished Pierre Berton’s excellent two volume history of the war), but I just don’t understand all the objections to commemorating the War of 1812 (during its 200th anniversary), or to this monument in particular. It’s the only war fought on Canadian soil that could really be said to have any sort of “Canadian” character (I wouldn’t count the Seven Years War in this category for example, though I wouldn’t object to monuments to that historical event either). While it was a relatively “small” conflict, it nonetheless had a pretty profound effect on people’s notions of what it means to be “Canadian” (even if that effect was arguably based more upon the mythical framing of the nature of the war immediately after the fact than with an accurate portrayal of the realities of the war). Whoever really did it, and however it was done, this war was the one and only instance of a foreign power attempting to invade Canada, and said attempted invasion was thwarted. What’s not to like?

    Anyway, I’m all about us creating more monuments, not less, and celebrating our history much more than we do generally, so I really can’t object to this in the slightest.

    • There have been many “Canadian” wars in Canada; they tended to involve various First Nations. Including of course the Northwest Rebellion.:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_conflicts_in_Canada Interesting list, which includes riots, rebellions, etc

      The war itself is interesting history; but at the same time the Harper Conservatives are busy destroying our national memory, the Library and Archives.

      http://cultmontreal.com/2012/08/five-reasons-why-canadians-should-save-the-archives/

      http://www.ipolitics.ca/2012/08/10/val-knowles-closing-doors-on-canadas-history/

      http://plglondon.wordpress.com/2012/06/07/uwo-funeral-for-archival-funding-in-canada-post-funeral-summary/

      • True, but I look on those other “Canadian” wars as being more “civil wars”. I’m not ware of another war in which a foreign power invaded the territory of Canada in an attempt to annex it.

        • I don’t know much about the various wars in eastern Canada, but perhaps some First Nations did see themselves as fighting a foreign invader.

    • I’m a Southern Ontario native and am well-versed in the many details of the the War of 1812. Whenever relatives or others would be visiting we would take them the various monuments. We would always repeat the mantras of “this would be America if we had lost” etc.

      I must say that when I actually studied it in Grade 7 history I was quite disappointed that the record is rather more equivocal than we had been previously led to believe. The whole issue of “impressment” for example. As well the battle score is more or less tied and Americans feel justified in saying the “won” because of the Battle of New Orleans.

      So while I agree that the 200th anniversary is deserving of commemoration and should be marked in a few different forms or fashions I really do not like the whole thrust the Harper Conservatives have put on it, trying to emphasise aspects which either aren’t really that important or didn’t exist in actuality. But that seems to be Harper’s modus operandi.

      • Well, just on the “this would be America if we had lost” angle, the issue of impressement doesn’t change that at all. Impressment was certainly a stated rationale for the invasion, but the invasion was clearly meant to take Canada permanently from the British and incorporate it in to America. We WOULD be Americans today had America succeeded in their invasion.

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