A well-intentioned effort to honour Canadian war dead buried overseas with a memorial in their homeland has become mired in controversy. But despite the Conservative government’s backing, it’s unlikely to affect the party’s prospects this fall.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s near decade in power has featured a marked increase in the military’s profile, especially its historical contributions, even if government’s dealing with veterans have sometimes raised doubts about his sincerity.
It’s not surprising the Conservatives got behind a plan by Toronto businessman Tony Trigiani to erect a massive new memorial to Canada’s fallen on Nova Scotia’s Atlantic coast, a kind of bookend to the much beloved Vimy Memorial in France.
In fact, the giant statue, dubbed Mother Canada by Trigiani’s Never Forgotten National Memorial Foundation, would even be in direct line of site with Vimy.
“It symbolizes the welcoming home of over 114,000 souls that are buried in 2,500-plus cemeteries around the world from Hong Kong to Belgium,” retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie, one of two foundation ambassadors, tells Yahoo Canada News.
The government quickly got behind the privately-funded project in 2013, which could cost up to $60 million, but critics began emerging last year.
Some have slammed the scale of the Mother Canada statue, which at 24 metres is as high as an eight-story building, along with its visual ascetics. One, who didn’t want to be identified, told Yahoo that with its outstretched arms it resembled a giant piece of garden statuary.
Artistic merit aside, a bigger concern has been its location, an outcrop of pink granite by Green Cove in Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Highlands National Park, along the province’s famed Cabot Trail.
Critics say the massive seaward-facing monument will blight the natural vista and planned privately-run restaurant, education centre and gift shop don’t belong in that location, especially when alternative sites were available.
Not enough consultation, says critic
Parks Canada’s consultation process was too short, said Sean Howard, a leader of the Friends of Green Cove group spearheading opposition to the monument. The agency held only two public meetings, accepted a flawed consultant’s report and gave only a two-week window for written responses, said Howard.
“We haven’t been given any indication by Parks Canada about how long they’re now going to take to make a final decision,” Howard, a political science professor at Cape Breton University, said in an interview. “So our focus is using every day we’ve got, the phrase we’re using is before Green Cove becomes Concrete Cove.”
A Parks Canada spokesman the timeframe for completing the detailed impact analysis depends on how quickly the agency can review the more than 6,000 public comments, how much revision is needed and key information from a Mi’kmaq First Nation ecological knowledge study.
The 14-day review period “is within the standard range for projects of this scale,” Coady Slaunwhite said via email.
“There are many elements to be considered before this project can move forward including the environmental assessment, success of the foundation’s private fundraising campaign, and adherence to the Canada National Parks Act and other applicable legislation.”
Howard admitted that despite claims the project goes against Parks Canada’s policy regarding development in national parks, the chances of a successful legal challenge are slim.
“We’re exploring that, yes is the answer, but we’re certainly not committed to that,” he said. “We don’t want to commit time and resources to something that we don’t think’s going to work.”
Instead, Howard hopes growing media attention will put pressure on Parks Canada as it completes its review of the project. Friends of Green Cove now has about 800 members, most of them signed on in the last month, and the flap has received international exposure in articles in Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
The Globe and Mail published an editorial condemning the memorial as tasteless and redundant, given the hundreds of war memorials that already dot the Canadian landscape, especially the more modest National War Memorial.
“A brutal megalith doesn’t prompt individual introspection – it mocks it,” the Globe opined last month. “And by defiling a quiet beauty spot with its grandiose bulk, Mother Canada will only diminish the heritage it claims to honour.”
The opposition group has also launched a letter-writing campaign targeting the memorial’s long list of honourary patrons, which ranges from Nova Scotia MP and Justice Minister Peter MacKay to singer Susan Aglukark, CBC news anchor Peter Mansbridge, his CTV counterpart Lisa La Flamme, businessman and retired senator Trevor Eyton and Mila Mulroney.
Cape Breton opinion divided
Opinion in the economically stagnant Cape Breton Island region is divided, James Morrow, publisher of the biweekly Victoria Standard in nearby Baddeck, N.S., told Yahoo Canada News.
Letters to the Standard and other papers mostly have been critical, he said.
“No one is against a national memorial for veterans,” said Morrow. “It’s the placement in a national park.”
But people “down north” favour the project, he said. Besides providing jobs during construction, some see the memorial as potentially increasing tourist visits to the park.
“We have very high unemployment here,” he said.
MacKenzie, best known as commander of Canadian peacekeeping forces at Sarajevo, Bosnia, during the breakup of Yugoslavia, said much of the criticism of the project has been based on misinformation.
Involved in several veteran-support groups, MacKenzie said he initially begged off joining Trigiani’s foundation until he saw an artist’s rendering of the Mother Canada statue.
“As soon as I saw that I said, I’m in,” said MacKenzie, a Nova Scotian. “What can I do to help?“
Yes, the statue is three metres taller than the National War Memorial, he said, but “it’s not the Colossus of Rhodes.
“It’s not even 20 per cent the height of the Statue of Liberty, which a number of people have compared it to.”
Critics argue the memorial would ruin Green Cove’s environment. But Parks Canada selected the Green Cove site as the most appropriate for the monument, said MacKenzie. It takes up only a half hectare, of which 75 per cent would retain the exposed granite.
The location is also symbolic, he said.
“It represents one of the last chunks of our country that hundreds of thousands of of soldiers saw as they were leaving [for] World War One and World War Two, and probably the first chunk for those lucky enough to return,” said MacKenzie.
Trademark spat over Mother Canada name
Perhaps the strangest tussle has been over the name Mother Canada. It’s long been the nickname for Canada Bereft, the four-metre sculpture that anchors the Vimy Memorial.
“We strongly believe that Mother Canada resides at the monument at Vimy,” Christopher Sweeney, who chairs the Vimy Foundation, said in an interview.
Sweeney said he approached Trigiani twice by letter asking that the foundation stop referring to its statue as Mother Canada. The first appeal was ignored and the second produced a letter from the Never Forgotten Memorial Foundation’s lawyer saying it had trademarked the name.
“Shocking,” said Sweeney. “How can you trademark something that doesn’t really belong to you and it’s 5,000 miles away from what you’re doing?”
Sweeney said he’s worried the controversy over the Green Cove project will harm his foundation’s efforts to raise funds for a new education centre at Vimy if people connect the two memorials.
MacKenzie said trademark protection was necessary to guard against knockoff Mother Canada trinkets being sold, syphoning off profits from authentic souvenirs that will have to provide revenue for the monument’s upkeep once it is handed over to Parks Canada.
“So we have to establish a fund in a way to bring in money in order to maintain the statue,” he said. “That’s written right into the direction to us from cabinet.”
If anything, the retired general said, the pace of the review likely means the estimated $25-million first phase – the statue, surrounding walkway and bridge – won’t be completed by the planned 2017 deadline, in time for Canada’s 150th birthday and coincidently the centennial of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
Uncertainty is also hamstringing fundraising, he said.
“You can’t go and raise large amounts of money when in fact nobody’s put a rubber stamp on a document that says you have a right to commence construction,” said MacKenzie.
Sweeney said the Vimy Foundation hasn’t gotten to the point of considering a legal challenge.
“I’m not sure of the next step but we’re certainly charging ahead and we’re going to continue calling Mother Canada in France Mother Canada and I guess we’ll see what happens,” he said.
Where do veterans stand on the project?
Veterans groups have said little or nothing publicly about the Never Forgotten project and surrounding controversy.
Requests by Yahoo Canada News to the Canadian Legion’s Dominion Command to state the top veteran organization’s position went unanswered. MacKenzie said he’s been told the legion’s national leadership embraces the project.
Howard said he hopes the campaign for the Oct. 19 federal election will help put a spotlight on the project, though he worries Ottawa may push the project-approval process over the summer so the foundation can break ground before the election, rendering it a fait accompli.
Just how much political traction it will have, even regionally, never mind nationally, remains to be seen.
Nelson Wiseman, director of the Canadian Studies Program at the University of Toronto, said Mother Canada is not on the national radar like that other controversial monument, the memorial to the victims of communism the government wants to plant next to the Supreme Court building in Ottawa over local objections.
Wiseman doubts Mother Canada will resonate much outside the local constituency, “and even there I don’t think it would be the determining factor.
“In fact, the Conservatives aren’t really competitive now in Atlantic Canada. It’s their weakest region. It might reinforce their pre-existing opinions, which is they didn’t really care for Harper in the first place, or they did care for him and this is fine.”
Morrow of the Standard noted the local Liberal MP, Mark Eyking, is among the project’s honourary patrons.
MacKenzie, too, thinks there’s little potential for political damage for the ruling Tories and suspects opposition parties see no upside in broaching it on the stump.
“I would be delighted if it were the other way around, that some one would stand on top of the mountain and say ‘this is going to happen, get used to it.’ “ said MacKenzie.
“But that’s not going to happen. I don’t think there’ll be any votes won or lost.”