Misgivings about politically motivated monuments in precious public spaces - Macleans.ca

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


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.