THERE GO THE STATUES: A JACOBIN WALK AROUND PARLIAMENT HILL By Tom MacDonald (Article)
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal characterized current events in the US as “an American Jacobin moment”, citing the efforts to tear down historical symbols and alleging that a new and intolerant liberal orthodoxy is sweeping America. Although I don’t buy this right-wing scare-mongering, it is an interesting historical analogy to see dredged up. Jacobin Paris went through a true “bonfire of the statuary”, with royal monuments toppled all across the city. Perhaps the grisliest episode was at the Basilica of Saint-Denis where the bodies of deceased kings and queens, including Louis XIV the Sun King, were disinterred from their sculpted sepulchres and scattered in a mass grave outside the church.
The US is a very long way from that kind of excess. But the reconsideration of historical monuments there is going well beyond the Confederate statues, which should of course be confined to museums or battlefield memorials. The national debate has now been extended to the likes of Columbus, Spanish missionaries, Washington, Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson. Even Abe Lincoln has become a target. His Emancipation Declaration monument in DC’s Lincoln Park was recently placed under guard and fenced for safety. That statue was financed by grateful freed blacks, was dedicated by the great black orator Frederick Douglass, and was the location for one of his most famous speeches. Unfortunately, it was also designed by whites and depicted the freed slaves in a blatantly subservient posture at Lincoln’s feet – raising a legitimate question about its need for removal. In New York, a similarly offensive Teddy Roosevelt statue was recently moved from in front of the Natural History Museum. It featured Teddy mounted on a horse, flanked by black and indigenous bearers carrying his guns and baggage.
The reconsideration of US historical figures generally stands on solid ground. Woodrow Wilson (whose name is being removed from a Princeton school) was an outright racist. Teddy Roosevelt was the quintessential American Imperialist, and his New York statue was a tableau of white supremacy. Even Lincoln was no saint. His wife’s family were slave-owners, and his preferred post-emancipation solution for many years was to have the freed slaves go back to Africa. So it is good to see this discussion and it is certainly high time that we saw the Confederate symbol removed from Nascar and from the Mississippi State flag (a state that incredibly only ratified the 13th amendment abolishing slavery in 1995!).
Coping with your history is difficult when it includes so much racial injustice, a horrific civil war, a genocidal westward expansion, a heavy dose of imperialism, and when 10 of your first 12 Presidents were slave-owners (the only exceptions being John Adams and his son John Quincy). It is all the more difficult when your current President coddles white supremacists and constantly spews divisive and hate-filled rhetoric.
Trump has now put “sculpture wars” front and center in his “culture war”, hoping that this will energize his base, spread fear, and appeal to the "law and order" sentiment of Middle America. His Mount Rushmore speech on July 4th embodied this approach, delivered in front of a monument on sacred Lakota Sioux land, carved by a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and featuring images of 2 slave-owning Presidents and one war-monger. Perhaps Trump’s next speech will be at Stone Mountain in Georgia which features gigantic bas-relief sculptures of Jefferson Davis, Robert E, Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum actually did the original models for Stone Mountain before he took on Mount Rushmore. He was fired over financial disagreements and his replacements took decades to complete the work. But this Confederate Mount Rushmore was finally opened – notably on the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's assassination (April 14, 1965) - and it has become a shrine for KKK members and other crazies.
With all this sculpture turmoil south of our border, I decided to take a walk around Parliament Hill to inventory our statures, to take a critical view of them, and to reflect on how they might fare in the face of a “Jacobin Destruction Committee” becoming active here. Since the Hill is largely closed and under construction, many of the statues are not as accessible as normal (perhaps a good thing in the current climate). That said, most are still there and visible. In fact, those at the back have been turned around to face away from the Parliament Buildings for better viewing while the construction is underway. Having made the survey, I thought that I would share my reflections and what I think is some interesting trivia on our Ottawa statuary and the “heroes” it memorializes, some of whom would certainly never get a statue today. Hopefully this may help to inspire some of your own walks and to inform some of your own judgments about our historical heritage and how we portray it.
As I started my tour of the Hill on the western side, the first statue that I came to was Sir Robert Borden, the last Canadian Prime Minister to become a “Sir”. He took us through the First World War and did have some admirable achievements. For instance, women’s suffrage for federal voting came during his tenure. But he also brought out the North West Mounted Police to violently quash the Winnipeg General Strike, a definite black mark in these days of “Defund the Police”. And worst of all, he ran his 1911 election campaign on the slogan “A White Canada”, deploying Trump-like scare-mongering about non-white immigration. No wonder he is coming off the hundred-dollar bill.
After Borden we come to Lester B. Pearson, looking very relaxed seated in an armchair with a leg comfortably crossed and one large-sized shoe out-stretched. The toe of that shoe has taken on a golden-bronze hue, rubbed with presumed affection by passers-by (it reminded me of David Lloyd George’s toe at the entry to the House of Commons Chamber in the British Parliament, which has been rubbed into a similar glow by parliamentarians hoping that it will bring a touch of his Welsh rhetorical flourish as they enter to debate). Pearson is considered one of Canada’s great diplomats, having pursued a career in foreign service before moving into politics, and of course winning the Nobel Prize for his peace-keeping initiative during the Suez Crisis of 1956. But lately he is being re-evaluated from the left. Yves Engler, supported by Norm Chomsky, has published a book portraying him as a Cold War enthusiast who helped push Canada into the Korean War, who supported CIA coups in Iran, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere, and who brought US nuclear missiles to Canada. So even his statue and its golden toe could become a candidate to get the boot.
I might add that there is also pressure to remove David Lloyd George statues in London because of his racist and anti-Semitic views. His statue at the doorway entering the British House of Commons is paired with one of Winston Churchill whose statues have also become a target for attack in the UK.
Speaking of British personalities, as we climb the hill from Pearson, we come next to a large statue of Queen Victoria. That would almost certainly have to go in any Jacobin purge. She is British Imperialism personified: Rudyard Kipling, Cecil Rhodes, the scramble for Africa, the Raj in India, the “white man’s burden” and all that.
Beyond Queen Vic, we have a line-up of political luminaries starting behind the splendid Parliamentary Library. Most controversial now among them is our first Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald. I have of course always been a fan, for his name (even with a small “d”), his wit, his whiskey-fuelled rhetoric, and for what he did to build our country. He was the key architect of our National Dream - Confederation, Westward expansion, the transcontinental railroad, independence from both the US and Britain. But the hanging of Louis Riel and the residential schools issue have turned his statues into lightning-rods. Having already been removed from Victoria City Hall, his statue could presumably never survive any editing of the Pantheon on Parliament Hill.
And if Sir John A. has to go, what about the statues of his two key Ministers – George Etienne Cartier and Thomas D’Arcy McGee. They were both deceased by the time of the North-West Rebellion but they were around for some of the earlier Macdonald government policies related to First Nations. Would they also have to go in light of Cabinet solidarity and presumed complicity? Cartier’s was the first statue ever placed on the Hill. It was commissioned in 1873 after a tear-filled speech in Parliament by Sir John A. on the death of his Quebec lieutenant. McGee’s statue has an interesting history. It was commissioned in 1910 and the sculptor sent the design to a foundry in Belgium where the work was completed it in 1914. With the German invasion, however, the statue was buried so it would not be melted down for cannon forgings. When it finally arrived in Canada in 1919, Parliament was being rebuilt after the 1916 fire. So McGee did not get installed until 1922 and then without any ceremony. Perhaps with all that and the fact that McGee was assassinated by the Fenians, the Jacobins may let him stay.
Onward in the walk we come to Canada’s second PM, Alexander McKenzie. He was PM for only 4 years but those included the passage of the Indian Act in 1876. So that would be enough to topple him. It would also make a clean sweep of the statues by Quebec sculptor Louis-Philippe Hébert (the others on the Hill being Queen Vic, Sir John A. and Cartier). Oh well, at least his famous statue of Evangeline in Grand Pré, Nova Scotia should be safe. It is interesting to note that the Alexander Mackenzie statue was part of the Canadian pavilion at the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1900 before being installed on the Hill in 1901. One wonders what the crowds made of this statue of a dour Scot at an exhibition that marked the high point of Art Noveau and that had such wonders as the world’s largest Ferris wheel (100 meters high), and the first escalators, moving sidewalks and motion pictures.
Also in the statue line-up is George Brown, the Reform Party politician and owner-founder of Toronto’s Globe newspaper. He gets points for helping to found the Anti-Slavery Society in 1850 and for supporting the Underground Railroad. But his so-called Reform government also passed an act in 1849 to specifically disenfranchise women in Ontario. Moreover, he was ardently anti-Catholic and anti-French Canadian.
Then we have John Diefenbaker. I have always had a soft spot for Dief the Chief as my great, great grandmother was the midwife when he was born. That was in in the tiny village of Neustadt, Ontario populated largely by German-Canadians. In the 1950s, Dief still used to come to Neustadt on his whistle-stops and take tea with the older generation of my mother’s family, the Weinerts. My sister and I remember being baby-sat by his Mounties as he did so. Dief has a sterling record on most of today’s hot issues. He appointed the first female Cabinet Minister. He gave the First Nations the vote. He passed the Bill of Rights in 1960. He took a strong stand against South African apartheid. He brought in Hong Kong immigrants at a time when our immigration policy was highly Eurocentric. As a young MP, he fought against Mackenzie King’s internment of Japanese-Canadians during the war (in fact, Dief’s maiden parliamentary speech in 1940 was about how German-Canadians were true patriots and not a fifth column). But no one is perfect. Now there are stories claiming that Dief had two illegitimate sons, one in Saskatchewan and one in Toronto. What would the “me too” movement make of that – not to mention Olive! And of course, there was the tragedy of the Avro Arrow decision.
The largest statue on the Hill is probably one that can stay. It is for Robert Balfour and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine. We owe to them the introduction of responsible government to Canada, essentially the origins of Canadian democracy. Theirs was the first government of a United Upper and Lower Canada. As co-Prime Ministers, they promoted French-English harmony, laid the foundations of Canada's education system, granted amnesty to those involved in the 1837 rebellions, introduced protections for immigrants, and eschewed violence (even ordering police not to shoot on a mob when it set fie to the Montreal parliament in 1849). Even the Jacobins would have trouble finding fault with this pair. Moreover, this is undoubtedly the most attractive monument on the Hill, designed by Walter Seymour Allward, who is best known for his moving Vimy Ridge memorial in France.
Heading for the Hill’s eastern exit, we find atop a small hillock a statue of the much-beloved Sir Wilfred Laurier. Maclean’s Magazine ranked him as our Number 1 PM in a survey of 2011. He helped to bridge the English-French divide and to establish Canada’s firm independence from Brittan. He is like the Wayne Gretzky of our PMs. He holds the record for most years as a party leader (nearly 32), most years as an MP (nearly 45), most consecutive years as PM (15), is tied with Sir John A for most election victories (4), and stands fourth for most total years as PM (after Mackenzie King, Sir John A, and Pierre Trudeau). But alas! Justin has already had to apologize for two things for which Laurier was responsible: - the infamous Chinese head tax aimed at deterring Asian immigration, and the case of the Komagata Maru, a ship full of Sikh refugees which Canada refused to let land in 1914. Recently Justin has faced calls to change the name of the Laurier Club (for large Liberal Party donors).
Below Laurier, at the eastern entrance to Parliament Hill, we have William Lyon Mackenzie King. He was our longest-serving PM and no doubt our strangest, with his crystal ball and his communications with the spirit world. WLMK would surely be one of the first to go in any statue sweep. He received his PhD from Harvard based on a dissertation entitled “Oriental Immigration to Canada”, the thesis being that it was highly undesirable for many reasons. This PhD work was a rewrite of a paper that he had written as Deputy Minister of Labour. He worked as a labour relations consultant for John D. Rockefeller in the midst of a bloody strike at one of J.D.’s Colorado coal mines (marked by the Ludlow massacre). My former High Commissioner in London Roy MacLaren published a book last year entitled Mackenzie King in the Age of the Dictators, documenting WLMK’s flirtation with fascism prior to the outbreak of WW II, including how he valued Hitler a fellow mystic and how he strongly supported Chamberlain’s appeasement policies.
Perhaps WLMK’s greatest fault, although also the key to his political longevity, was his moral malleability, his capacity to bend and twist to every prevailing wind. In that context, it is almost comical to see such a thrusting statue of him on the Hill in which the sculptor said that he was trying “to convey the forcefulness and determination that defined the strength of King’s character”. Contrast that with the F. R. Scott poem entitled WLMK, a great take-down worth reading in its entirety but here is an excerpt:
The Mother's boy in the lonely room
With his dog, his medium and his ruins.
He skilfully avoided what was wrong
Without saying what was right,
And never let his on the one hand
Know what his on the other hand was doing.
Truly he will be remembered
Wherever men honour ingenuity,
Ambiguity, inactivity, and political longevity.
Let us raise up a temple
To the cult of mediocrity,
Do nothing by halves
Which can be done by quarters.
Perhaps we could replace King’s statue with one of his dog Pat. My father always joked that the country was never run so well as when it was run by Mackenzie King’s dog.
Apart from Baldwin and Lafontaine, who does that leave on Parliament Hill? Oh yes, the Queen – Cor Bless! Well she has actually been moved temporarily to the front of Rideau Hall due to the construction on the Hill. But surely she has to stay, in spite of all the foibles of her family and the foot-in-mouth disease which afflicts her husband.
The Queen’s equestrian statue, normally on the Hill, was unveiled in 1992 for Canada’s 125th anniversary and her 40th year as Queen. She sits mounted on the horse Centenial, a gift from the RCMP in 1973 to mark their 100th anniversary. That was the second Mountie horse to be presented to the Queen, the first being her beloved Burmese whom she rode for 18 straight years (1969-86) for the Trooping of the Colours and who famously kept his nerve when shots were fired at the Queen during the event in 1981 (after Burmese went out to pasture, the Queen switched to a phaeton for the Trooping ceremony). I have no idea why the Queen changed Centenial’s name to drop an “n”, but she also did a name-change with an RCMP horse presented to her while I was in London. At the time of Canada House re-opening and an RCMP musical ride visit, she was presented with a horse which had been called James based on a Canadian schoolchildren’s naming competition. The Queen changed it to Saint James to go with the Palace and because she like the horse so much. I recall that, when the Queen conveyed the name-change to High Commissioner MacLaren, he quickly adapted a line from My Fair Lady and said: “Very good, Ma’am, but I know him so well I’ll just call him Saint Jim”.
The final statue now inside the Parliament Hill gates commemorates an event rather than a personality - the War of 1812. It was obviously designed with a view to political correctness and inclusiveness. Entitled “Trial through Diversity”, it seeks to honour all those who helped defend Canada. There is a British infantryman from the Royal Newfoundland Regiment (yes, they came all the way to Upper Canada and played a key role in taking Detroit), a Voltigeur from Quebec, a woman bandaging him, a Royal Marine, a Canadian militiaman, a First Nations warrior, and a Métis firing a cannon. There was some criticism that this did not belong on the Hill and that the Harper government was overdoing the War of 1812 celebrations with their $28 million budget. Perhaps, but I think the sculpture is well-done. It was dedicated on Nov 6, 2014, the 200th anniversary of the battle of Malcolm’s Mills (the last battle of the war fought in Canada). A red maple was planted nearby in soil from 10 Canadian battlefields and watered from 6 oceans and lakes significant in the war. But one might well ask why there is no figure to represent the black soldiers who fought in the war for both Canada and their freedom. The so-called Coloured Corps played a key role in some of the most important Canadian victories on the Niagara frontier, including at Lundy’s Lane, Stoney Creek, and Queenston Heights. Black naval hands also represented a large proportion of manpower in ships on both sides (although more willingly for the British). So their absence from this memorial is a glaring oversight.
The other monument normally on the Hill is "Women are Persons", commemorating the landmark 1929 decision won by the Famous Five (five women’s rights activists from Western Canada). That case originated on the question of whether a woman could be appointed to the Senate but its implications were far-reaching. The sculpture has temporarily been moved from the Hill to the front of the Conference Centre (appropriate, since the Senate is now sitting there). I am not enamoured of the fact that they were all campaigners for prohibition. But one would think that their strong advocacy on women's rights should shield them from any attacks for political incorrectness. But wait a minute! One of them, Emily Murphy, used to write regularly in Maclean’s Magazine under the pseudonym Janet Canuck, mounting virulent attacks against Jews, Asians, and Eastern Europeans in Alberta. In 1927, she also wrote a book called The Black Candle that portrayed Chinese immigrants as destroying Canada via the drug trade. The others of the Famous Five do not appear to have shared Murphy’s xenophobia and racism. But most, including Nellie McClung, did share an attachment to eugenics - perhaps not the genocidal eugenics advocated by the Nazis but certainly the idea that mental and physical defects should be rooted out through sterilization policies. They used their positions to support the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act and to campaign for the program that eventually resulted in the sterilization of nearly 5,000 Albertans of "lesser genetic makeup". So their sense of the rights of "persons" had some lamentable boundaries.
Turning back to Parliament Hill, I don’t think that even the Jacobins would find fault with the Sir Galahad statue placed just outside the main gate. It represents a touching story and an act of gallantry by Henry Albert Harper. He lost his life at age 28 in an unsuccessful attempt to save 21-year old Bessie Smith (youngest daughter of a former New Brunswick premier and a Minister in the Laurier government) from drowning. It was on a cold December day in 1901 when a skating party that had set off from the then brand-new Royal Alexandra Interprovincial Bridge went awry. Bessie plunged into the icy water near where the Gatineau River meets the Ottawa. Harper dove in to assist but both were lost. The story gripped the city and the memorial went up in 1905 with great fanfare, 3,000 attendees, and speeches by Laurier and Governor General Earl Grey. Mackenzie King also had a role in the memorial and considered Harper a dear friend. The two had roomed together at university and, at the time of his death, Harper was editor of the Labour Gazette, a publication of the new Labour Department of which King was Deputy Minister. The Galahad theme reflected Harper’s chivalry and was inspired by the fact that he had always kept hanging behind his desk a copy of the Galahad painting by Pre-Raphaelite artist George Frederick Watts.
Across from Sir Galahad is the Terry Fox statue. He is more than safe and also seems to be the current odds-on favourite for our five-dollar bill once Laurier is removed (as Sir John A. was by Viola Desmond on the ten).
A short walk west of the Hill brings us to the Supreme Court building. Usually it is viewed at a distance from Wellington Street. But approaching more closely, you get one of the best views of the Parliament Buildings from this side of the river, with the West and Center Block towers and the Library Dome all in glorious alignment. We also find more statues, most notably Louis Saint Laurent, who was placed there no doubt because he made our Supreme Court the ultimate judicial level in Canada. Previously it had been the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Britain (luckily for the Famous Five since the persons case was won in 1929 by the Judicial Committee over-ruling Canada’s Supreme Court).
Saint Laurent was known as Uncle Louis. He was nearly 60 when he entered politics, after 36 years as a lawyer. He was 66 when he became PM after being WLMK’s Minister of Justice and later of External Affairs. His tenure as PM marked many milestones - amendment of the British North America Act, the entry of Newfoundland into Canada, the Trans Canada Highway, the Saint Lawrence Seaway, the first Canadian-born GG (George Vanier). He was also the first PM to live at 24 Sussex. His government foundered on its handling of the Trans-Canada Pipeline debate when he and CD Howe were seen as high-handed and dismissive of parliamentary oversight. It is not clear how he would fare in a political correctness test, especially given his close association with WLMK. As King’s Justice Minister in 1943, he received a letter from a black soldier complaining about not being able to be served in a restaurant even in his uniform. Uncle Louis' response was simply to say that racial discrimination was not illegal in Canada. He may have been legally correct at the time in saying that, but really?
Even if Saint Laurent’s statue had to go, hopefully the impressive statues of Justice and Virtue would be left flanking the front of the Court. They are more of the work of Vimy Memorial sculptor Allward and were originally made to go on a monument for Edward VIII who died in 1910. Allward was commissioned in 1912 but the war intervened and the project was cancelled. Justice and Virtue were packed away and lost for more than 50 years before being rediscovered and installed at the Court in 1969.
As for other monuments, the Colonel John By statue on Major's Hill Park should be fine. After all, he gave us a wonderful UNESCO Heritage site. The Rideau Canal came at a cost of about 1,000 lives between 1826 and 1832. But more than half were from malaria. And canal-building was dangerous business in the 19th century; the Erie Canal project also had about 1,000 deaths, the Panama Canal some 22,000 in the French phase and 6,000 in the American one (the latter number being mostly black Caribbean workers), and the Suez Canal an incredible 120,000 over 11 years. Colonel By's reputation is not squeaky clean. He was recalled and accused of mishandling funds on the canal project. Major's Hill is named after his successor, Major Daniel Bolton. But most consider that the charges were unfair and it would be a pity to take the Colonel away from his perch looking down on his handiwork. A short walk from his statue, one can also see the foundations of Colonel By's house, which was destroyed by fire in 1848.
Samuel de Champlain may not survive, however, on Nepean Point. That statue stands in the precise spot where that great explorer took solar measurements during his second trip up the Ottawa River in 1615. It was erected in 1915 to mark the 300th anniversary. One oddity is that, although Champlain knew how to use an astrolabe, the sculptor did not. The instrument is upside down and also has a handle which no contemporary astrolabes did. Canada Day, 2019 saw protests around a Champlain statue in Orillia which has since been temporarily retired. That one was considered offensive partly because of the portrayal of First Nations as subservient figures. But the whole idea of celebrating events related to European arrival is now out of fashion, as we have seen by the toppling of Christopher Columbus in the U.S.
While on that subject, I suppose we may need to rename Jacques Cartier Park in Gatineau. And what about the statue of Jesuit martyr-missionary Jean de Brébeuf on the Quebec side of the river? It marks his voyage up the Ottawa in 1626 en route to the Georgian Bay area where he and other Jesuits lived among the Hurons until being massacred by the Iroquois. Brébeuf did give his heart to the First Nations - quite literally, as his Iroquois captors ate it, essentially as a tribute, after being so impressed with his bravery under torture. But Christianizing the First Nations is certainly not something for which we would be erecting statues these days.
Back in central Ottawa, let us turn to the “Valiants” monument installed between Parliament and the Conference Canter. It commemorates 14 Canadian military heroes and was put up by the Tory government in 2007, at a time when we were deeply mired in Afghanistan and Harper was keen to celebrate all things military. That said, it is a thoughtful tribute. I like the fact that it has a quote from Virgil’s Aeneid: “No day will ever erase you from the memory of time”. A Jacobin review of the Valiants, however, may not leave many standing.
From the early French colonial days, we have Count Frontenac and Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville . I always liked Frontenac’s ballsy response when asked to surrender Quebec to the British: “My only reply will be from the mouths of my cannons”. But he was also someone who expanded New France by seizing more and more First Nations territory. He over-ruled Bishop Laval and made it policy to sell liquor to the indigenous. He was known to be the scourge of the Iroquois. He also got France to authorize bringing black slaves from the West indies to Quebec. D’Iberville does not fare much better. He was a great explorer (the founder of Louisiana) and a great soldier (harrying the British from Hudson’s Bay to Newfoundland). But these were bloody times and he is also known for the Schenectady Massacre in which an undefended town was attacked (admittedly in revenge for a British-Iroquois attack on Lachine). Women and children were slaughtered or taken prisoner. About a dozen black slaves were also killed and others sent into slavery among the indigenous tribes working with d’Iberville.
From the American Revolutionary War, the Valiants are Joseph Brant and John Butler. Brant and his Six Nations warriors were a tremendous asset to the British. But he was also a slave-owner and slave-trader, bringing at least 30 black slaves with him to the Grand River Valley in 1793 when he fled to Canada from the US. So his statue could hardly survive a purge, and we may also need to rename Brantford. John Butler and his “Butler’s Rangers” fought Americans all across the New York frontier and helped to save Montreal from an attack by Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys. But as with d’Iberville, there is a massacre issue, in his case the Cherry Valley massacre, considered to be one of the bloodiest of the Revolutionary War.
From the War of 1812, we of course have Sir Isaac Brock. I recall visiting the cathedral in his hometown of Saint Peter Port, Guernsey and seeing the plaque: “He saved Canada for the Empire”. After the war, he was considered the “hero of Upper Canada”, largely because he died so courageously in battle. But revisionists have pointed out that his charge up Queenston Heights was more foolhardy than brave, and that the battle was won only much later and with more clever and evasive tactics. Moreover, Sir Isaac did not actually like or trust his Canadian militiamen, preferring to rely on British regulars and on First Nations fighters supplied by his close ally Tecumseh. Then there is Charles de Salaberry. He put together the Quebec Voltigeurs as a fighting force that proved key to defending Montreal against American attack and to winning the decisive battle of Chrysler’s Farm. That all seems fine but some of his earlier military career was spent in Jamaica, where he would have been defending its slavery-dominated society. Finally, we have Laura Secord, one of only 2 women among the 14 Valiants. Surely she can not be faulted, especially as her chocolate Easter eggs are so delicious.
The rest of the Valiants are from the two World Wars. Among the busts at the back of the monument are Georgina Pope and Captain John Thomas Wallace. Wallace was a Newfoundlander who served in the merchant marine in both wars. Pope was a nurse from PEI who served in the Boer War and later at Ypres. Both seem like they would pass muster.
At the front of the monument is a statue of General Sir Arthur Currie, the former insurance salesman who became the first and only commander of the Canadian Corps in WW I. He was always considered one of the best tactical generals on the Western Front, probably because he had among the bravest troops. But his reputation came under fire after the war because of the huge losses sustained by Canadian forces, especially late in the war. The Canadian Corps had no less than 45,000 casualties in the last 100 days. Some felt that Currie was sacrificing his soldiers to gain personal accolades and fame. The fact that he ordered an attack on Mons after the armistice had been signed but not yet come into effect was seen as symptomatic of that. The book and stage-play "Last day, Last hour" documents a 1927court case between Currie and a Port Hope newspaper which Currie sued for libel over such claims. The fact that he sued for $50,000 and was awarded a mere $500 suggests that he may not be entirely guiltless.
Behind Currie are the busts of 4 Victoria Cross winners: Corporal Joseph Kaeble who died in action on the Western Front and was the first Quebecker to win a VC in WW I; Lieutenant Robert Gray of British Columbia, a bomber pilot with British Navy Fleet Air who died in the assault on Japan; Pilot Officer Andrew Mynarski of Manitoba who died in action over France as a gunner in a Lancaster bomber; and Brigadier General Paul Triquet, who was a Captain with the Royal 22nd (the Vingt-Deux or Van Doos) in Italy, the only Quebecker to win a VC in WW II and the only one of these four to have survived his war.
All of our VC winners deserve honour. Canada is second only to Britain with 99 VCs: 73 in WW I, 16 in WW II, 5 in the Boer War, 2 in the 1857 Indian Mutiny, and one each from Omdurman (1898), the Andaman Islands (1867) and the Crimea (1854 at Balaclava, the Charge of the Light Brigade). One could of course think of other worthy VC-winning candidates for the Valiants memorial. For instance, the first black soldier to win a VC (at Lucknow in the Indian Mutiny) was William Hall from Nova Scotia, the son of slaves rescued and freed by a British frigate in the War of 1812. One could also ask where is Canada's most famous VC winner, Billy Bishop. The answer is that poor old Billy had his reputation sullied by revisionist historical attacks questioning the veracity of his exploits, arguing that many were not witnessed by others and that Billie may have embellished and/or fabricated. There was even a Senate Committee inquiry in 1985, which found that there was insufficient evidence to conclude either way. This is a classic example of our tendency to want to cut our heroes down to size, what the Australians call the "tall poppy syndrome".
Beyond the Valiants is our glorious War Memorial, the work of Vernon March, who also did the South African one in Capetown. His other major Canadian work is the statue of Champlain in Orillia, which is under attack for racial insensitivity. The War Memorial is called “The Response”. At its top we have Liberty holding a torch and Nike the Winged Victory holding a wreath. Below are 22 figures, representative of the branches of the Canadian military at the time of WW I, marching forward dragging a cannon. The memorial was commissioned in 1926 and the statues were cast in Vernon's workshop in Farnborough, England. When Vernon died of pneumonia in 1930, his siblings had to complete the work and the statues did not arrive in Canada until 1938. They were installed and the monument completed just in time for a Royal visit by George VI and, on May 21, 1939, an estimated 100,000 people came out to see it commemorated (not sure if George attempted The Kings Speech on that occasion). Three and a half months after this commemoration of Canadian sacrifice in the "war to end all wars", Hitler invaded Poland.
The War Memorial is a product of its time and, unlike the War of 1812 statue, makes no attempt at political correctness (e.g. no women to be seen). Our inclusiveness quotient on war memorials is helped to some extent, however, by the National Aboriginal Veterans Monument in Confederation Park. That is a beautiful statue laden with spirit animal symbolism. It was created by Saskatchewan First Nations sculptor Noel Lloyd Pinay, whose father stormed the beach on D-day.
A walk around the Confederation Park uncovers other interesting sights. There is a large fountain which was once part of an earlier Ottawa memorial to Colonel By. It came from Trafalgar Square where it was installed in 1845 (the era that the Rideau Canal was completed) and stayed until 1948. The memorial to the South African War (1899-1902) was financed by pennies donated by 300,000 Canadian schoolchildren and commemorates the 267 Canadians who died in that conflict. Above the Park, just off Albert Street, is the Korean War Memorial depicting an unarmed Canadian soldier and two Korean children holding wreaths of maple leaves. There is an identical statue in the Busan, Korea cemetery which holds the remains of 373 of the 516 Canadians killed in that war.
Beside the South African War Monument is the statue of a dog. It marks the Animals in War Memorial, placed there in recognition of the fact that Canada contributed 50,000 horses to that war. This memorial also includes 2 plaques recognizing horses and mules. As a former fan of Andy Capp cartoons (and of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront), I find it unfortunate that there is no plaque for pigeons. The Dickin Medal (known as the Victoria Cross for animals) was initiated in Britain 1943 (named after Mary Dickin, founder of the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals). It was awarded during WW II to 32 pigeons, 18 dogs, 3 horses, and one ship's cat. The pigeons included Beachcomber, who carried messages at Dieppe in 1944. The ship's cat, Simon, was a great rat-killer and also sustained serious battle wounds, not from rats but from enemy bombardment. Since WW II, the Dickin medals have all gone to the dogs, so they now have a total of 31, but, at latest count, still one behind the pigeons.
That brings me to the end of my statue inventory, although I should also mention those of Oscar Peterson in front of the National Arts Center, Joseph Karsh in front of the Chateau Laurier, and Maurice Richard across in Gatineau. No one should object to those three – unless some Maple Leaf fans might try to pull down the Rocket.
Recent monuments in Ottawa have tended to shift from personalities to themes. In the face of our modern cynicism and today’s intense media scrutiny, it seems that any "heroes" in public life generally reach their sell-by date long before anyone thinks of building them a statue. There are some important thematic memorials in downtown Ottawa which I would be remiss not to reference here : the well-known Peacekeeping Monument (1992); the Human Rights Monument near City Hall (unveiled by the Dalai Lama in 1990, with Article One of the UN Declaration on Human Rights and the words Equality, Dignity, Rights carved into its facade and repeated in 73 indigenous languages in its interior); the Police and Peace Officers Memorial (1995) tucked into the northwest corner of Parliament Hill with no statue but a wall of plaques with the names of those killed in service (now around 900); the National Firefighters Memorial (2012) on LeBreton Flats with an impressive statue and a memorial wall ; the Ottawa Women’s Monument in Minto Park off Elgin Street (inspired by the Ecole Polytechnique massacre, it records the names of 38 Ottawa women murdered, mostly by their husbands, between 1990 and 2000); the Holocaust Memorial across from the War Museum, the exterior of which is a rather uninviting series of cement walls, but with an interior quite worth a visit; the architect was the sometimes controversial Polish-American Daniel Libeskind (also known for the Berlin Jewish Museum, the Toronto ROM reno, and most famously the master-plan for the resurrection/commemoration of the World Trade Centre - he has a strong Canadian connection as his spouse is the sister of Stephen Lewis).
I hope that our statues will survive amidst the controversies, whether in museums, where they can be given appropriate context, or where they stand today. I value them, not because I admire all the people that they commemorate, but because I am interested in history and I see them as a window on our past. If we close that window, our vision will be more limited and our air more stale.
It is clear from my “statue stroll” around the Hill that our forebears rarely lived up to the ideals which we hold today. The statues speak to significant accomplishments, but also to a history which has embedded systemic racism and societal injustice that we are still struggling to uproot. But the statues are also a reminder that that the eyes of history are upon us and that we will be judged by our deeds more than our intentions. Will we leave a legacy of sporadic Jacobin iconoclasm, or one of decisive, lasting change? Will we focus on toppling statues from their foundations, or on laying new foundations for a future of which we can be prouder than we are of the past?
I do not have F. R. Scott’s poetic skill. But let me close with a modest rhyming effort.
It’s hard to be a hero
With a record kept so clean
That your statue won't be vandalized
Or tossed in some ravine.
If you ever strayed from virtue
Or just followed current trends
They may knock you from your pedestal
It's too late to make amends.
But can all who have a statue
On our parliamentary lawn
Still be held to modern standards
Even though they're dead and gone?
As we judge historic heroes
To extol them or condemn
Let's not forget that now is now
And that was way back then.
The moving finger's written
Lines that can not be erased
The past can teach us lessons
But the future must be faced.
Though our PM can apologize
For wrongs that have been done,
It's what will happen next that counts
It's forward we must run.
So what will you do Justin
To make our land a better place?
What will be your legacy
Apart from the blackface?
Will it be to move some statues,
To rename the Langevin Block,
To start some Royal Commissions
To talk and talk and talk?
We’ve seen your virtue signals
You’ve said how much you care
But when it comes to concrete steps
The cupboard’s pretty bare.
The figures in the statues
For all their faults and flaws
Took decisive measures
Made policies and laws.
We can critique the statues
But let’s focus on our goals.
Let’s get beyond the photo ops,
Let’s not be ruled by polls.
You promised that we’d see "real change”
We've waited far too long.
A PM who does nothing
Can of course do nothing wrong.
So seize the moment Justin
Let's see what you can do
To make systemic changes
Before history topples you.
Tags: Tom Macdonald