Will it be ‘icons and idols’ or ‘flesh and blood’ that we honour?


There’s nothing wrong with erecting statues to commemorate soldiers killed in battle. In fact, many people think that a 100-foot-tall monument called “Mother Canada”, her arms  spread wide, her gaze fixed upon the eastern horizon, plunked smack-dab in the middle of Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail at one of it finest promontories, is a terrific idea.

The chances are, of course, that those folks don’t live anywhere near the site for the planned memorial, a private-sector venture driven out of Toronto, which has already received Parks Canada approval and the enthusiastic endorsement of at least two federal cabinet ministers.

In fact, if those folks did live in or around the Green Cove cliff area of Cape Breton, they might wonder, as does Gordon Rideout, president of the Royal Canadian Legion branch in nearby Ingonish, if anyone has checked a map.

It’s not that he thinks the statue, itself, is a bad idea. It’s just that, he told the CBC in January, it’ll be in the wrong place.

“You’re in the middle of probably one of the most beautiful national parks in the country,” he said. “What’s going to happen here. . .is that the Cabot Trail. . .will have to be rerouted. There’s going to be an information centre there. There has to be, of course, washroom facilities and everything else put in there. And it’s just going to spoil one of the most overlooked places on the trail. . .I just don’t want to see a major reconstruction of that area. It’s going to turn it into a small Disney World.”

South Harbour resident Claudia Gahlinger goes farther. Though she’s all for remembering the sacrifices of Canada’s servicemen and women, she can’t help note the irony swirling about the project.

“We all know that we’ll be fined if we’re caught taking even a stick or stone from the park,” she told the CBC. “Yet this private foundation is going to be allowed to pave over, rearrange and, in effect, own an entire hectare.”

The foundation to which she refers is the Never Forgotten National Memorial Foundation, a charity established and run by Toronto business executive Tony Trigiani who got the idea while traveling through Canadian war memorials in Italy recently. “It’s going to be magnificent,” he told the Toronto Star late last year. “The views from the Cabot Trail are going to be spectacular.”

Indeed, Mr. Trigiani, they are already, and your massive, well-meant intention  – fully realized in granite or marble or limestone, or whatever they build statues out of these days – is not going to change the appearance of the North Atlantic ocean from the top of that cliff.

But it may help to speed unsettling changes that are already underway in the way we order our public priorities over the next few years.

Both Leona Aglukkaq, the federal minister responsible for Parks Canada, and Peter MacKay, Minister of Justice, have boarded Mr. Trigiani’s bandwagon, which is scheduled to arrive on the East Coast, toting a $30-million building fund, sometime in the next two years, or so.

Their support has, in no small measure, to do with the fact that neither they, nor any of their other colleagues in cabinet, will have to pay for it.

But more than this, the project comes at a time when the federal government’s devotion to military commemorations of every variety – icons and idols – seems to be achieving a sort of zenith that is perilously close to eclipsing the needs of military personnel – flesh and blood – who have not fallen, but have, rather, survived to endure the awful physical and emotional ramifications of their living sacrifices.

“The key message. . .is that improvements are required to specific New Veterans Charter programs to help Veterans and their families successfully transition to civilian life,” Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent stipulated in a blunt and wide-ranging report last year. “The most urgent shortcomings to address are those that affect the economic financial support provided to Veterans, especially totally and permanently incapacitated veterans who are vulnerable financially. It is simply not acceptable to let veterans who have sacrificed the most for their country – those who are totally and permanently incapacitated – live their lives with unmet financial needs.”

To be sure, statues are convincing and enduring ways to honour those who have fought and died in wars.

As for what to do with the living, starting a decent conversation usually avoids tragic misunderstandings on this earthly coil.

The feds might want to ask the bemused residents of Cape Breton about that.

Then again, statues don’t talk back.

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