Tag Archives: Parks Canada

Monuments or monstrosities


Nothing so divides a citizenry than the idols its government choose to worship on its behalf. Time, of course, has a funny way of levelling the peaks and valleys of what, initially, seems like a ferocious debate of eternal consequence.

When the French built their Eiffel Tower in 1867, it was derided by the intelligentsia as, “this truly tragic street lamp”, “this belfry skeleton”, “this mast of iron gymnasium apparatus, incomplete, confused and deformed”, “this high and skinny pyramid of iron ladders, this giant ungainly skeleton upon a base that looks built to carry a colossal monument of Cyclops, but which just peters out into a ridiculous thin shape like a factory chimney”.

In fact, Parisian artists published a formal complaint in the popular newspaper Le Temps, an excerpt of which read: “We come, we writers, painters, sculptors, architects, lovers of the beauty of Paris which was until now intact, to protest with all our strength and all our indignation, in the name of the underestimated taste of the French, in the name of French art and history under threat, against the erection in the very heart of our capital, of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower which popular ill-feeling has already christened the Tower of Babel.”

Nowadays, this formerly “monstrous” edifice is, arguably, France’s most loved symbol of Gallic civilization, the signature icon of the City of Lights.

What, I wonder, will we one day say about the so-called “Mother Canada” monument, the 24-metre-tall brainchild of a Toronto businessman who, having seen the graves of Canada’s war dead in Europe, thought it would be a swell idea to erect a statue in honour of them along one of the prettiest and ecologically significant coastlines in the country, Cape Breton’s north shore?

Indeed, what will eventually think about a memorial to victims of communism planned for a highly visible site in the heart of Ottawa’s government district, right next to the Supreme Court complex?

At the moment, and in both cases, the chattering classes are enraged (though the hoi polloi generally wonder what all the fuss is about).

Writing in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald recently, veteran columnist Ralph Surette was almost beside himself at the sheer effrontery of the Harper government’s moral and material support for Mother Canada.

“For those who still don’t fully understand the game, the ‘Mother Canada’ controversy should provide some enlightenment,” he needled. “The discovery that Parks Canada has furnished $100,000 to the project – after swearing that the statue in Cape Breton Highlands Park was a purely private project – blows the lid off the scheme. The political engineering on this comes from the Prime Minister’s Office.

“This is Stephen Harper building yet another monument to himself. It’s not just the money. The fact that the rules governing national parks have been casually trashed to accommodate the project has the PMO’s fingerprints all over it. No use hollering at Parks Canada bureaucrats. Like everyone else in government, they’ve been reduced to yo-yos of the PMO, detached from their guiding principles.”

As for the victims of communism memorial, controversy also attends. According to a recent editorial in the Toronto Star, “The problem with the project isn’t its size – though the original design was in fact far more intrusive than it needed to be. As we have written before, the issue is the very idea of turning a prime site in the middle of Ottawa’s government precinct over to a politically motivated memorial that does not speak to Canada’s own history.”

There is, of course, another solution to the various contretemps:

Stop erecting idols altogether.

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The Franklin find: genuine history turned political theatre


Since 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has authorized Parks Canada to spend millions of dollars on six polar searches for the wrecks of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus – the two British, Hecla class bomb vessels that ferried the expedition of Captain Sir John Franklin to its watery grave 169 years ago.

On Tuesday, having heard that one of those ships (no word yet on which one)  had been found resting under barely 11 meters of the Victoria Straight, off the coast of King William Island, far from the fabled Northwest Passage it and its sister ship had been commissioned to sail, Mr. Harper might have body-checked his own mother had she been blocking his access to a microphone.

“For more than a century this has been a great Canadian story, a mystery; it’s been the subject of scientists and historians, writers and singers,” he fairly giggled before a hastily arranged press conference in Ottawa. “So, I think we have a really important day in mapping together the history of our country.”

Indeed, as he reminded his fellow Canadians last month at the height of one of Parks Canada’s annual hunts for all things Franklin-rated, this “ultimately isn’t just about the story of discovery and mystery and all these things. It’s also really is laying the basis for what’s, in the longer term, Canadian sovereignty.”

In fact, on the face of it, Mr. Harper’s enthusiasm is both endearing and justified; amateur and professional historians owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. The find does, indeed, solve many mysteries, even as it will almost certainly raise tantalizing questions to vex and titillate scholars for years to come.

But does it really have anything to do with Canadian sovereignty, as Mr, Harper claims? According to at least one authority, that’s stretching the truth almost to breaking.

“The discovery of two historical wrecks from the 1840s that sailed under the authority of Britain before Canada was even a state doesn’t really extend our claims of control over the waters of the Northwest Passage,” Rob Huebert, associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, told the National Post. “This myth just had another chapter added,” he further commented for the Globe and Mail.

What it does do, however, is send another message to the international community – notably Russia and the U.S. – that Canada’s claims to Arctic region are historically valid, if that was ever in doubt.

It also ensures, as Mr. Huebert points out, that “the Arctic is going to be one of his (Mr. Harper’s) major legacies when people look back on his leadership period.”

In the broader sense, the Prime Minister’s interest in, and willingness to support, ventures like the search for Franklin repudiates some of the harsher criticism of him as a by-the-books politician with little or no interest in research and science. It all depends on what research and which science we’re talking about.

The Globe and Mail’s lead editorial yesterday congratulated the Harper regime for demonstrating both leadership and collaboration – qualities that, at least, helped searchers find the wreck – even as it castigated certain government members for cracking down on researchers who go off message.

Remember, the piece instructed readers, “The government that allowed journalists open access to the scientists looking for the Franklin ships is the same one that has routinely gagged government scientists since taking power. It is now impossible in Canada for a reporter to speak with a federal scientist without going through media relations officers, a lengthy and often fruitless process. The policy has been condemned  by the British scientific journal Nature and the American Association for the Advancement of Science”

How, one wonders, has that worked out for them?

Nope, unless some crafty spin doctor with a soft spot for unfettered free speech, environmental stewardship, and basic research for the sake of basic research can figure out a way to dramatize all science to good Conservative Party effect, this prime minister’s interest in science, while genuine, will remain politically discriminating.

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