Mother Canada and the Commemorative Ring of True Patriot Love may sound like a wisely abandoned Harry Potter novel, but it is, in fact, a statue with a lot of baggage.
A proposed statue, that is. If the federal government has its way, a 30-metre war memorial will soon rise over the spectacular coastline of Cape Breton Highlands National Park, a bit like Volgograd’s famous The Motherland Calls statue (minus the sword) or Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer (minus the beard) or Washington’s Lincoln Memorial (minus the restraint).
The Cape Bretoners who will have to live near Mother Canada are sharply divided over their gorgeous vista being interrupted by a roadside attraction to rival Sudbury’s giant nickel, Wawa’s huge goose or Vegreville’s enormous painted egg. “The thing is with this war memorial – it’s starting a war,” Ingonish-area resident Aaron Schneider told The Globe and Mail’s Jane Taber.
You can see why the federal government wants to throw its support behind Toronto businessman Tony Trigiano’s Never Forgotten National Memorial, which mirrors a similar monument to the war dead in Vimy. Two whole years have passed since the Disney-lite bicentennial celebrations of the War of 1812. We could use another conflict to lionize – and it’s not going to be Afghanistan. It’s hard to render post-traumatic stress in stone.
The Mother Canada monument raises more questions than it answers. Why does the Conservative government insist on honouring the war dead while ignoring the war living? (The closure of eight veterans’ centres, and the cavalier attitude with which Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino ignored the wishes of servicemen and women, should also be filed under “never forgotten.”)
Why does Mother Canada, pictured from the back in artists’ renderings, look like the Grim Reaper from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life? Why is it that the only time a woman is depicted in a public statue, she is embodying some abstract concept like grief or sacrifice? Where are the statues of actual women and their actual accomplishments? Who will be the face of Mother Canada? Fiona Reid? Alanis Morissette? I’d go with Catherine O’Hara, if there’s a public vote.
I could go on, but I’m too busy marvelling at the plans, including such haute patriotic kitsch as the We See Thee Rise Observation Deck. If approved, the memorial site will open July 1, 2017, also featuring a gift shop and a café. I’d suggest adding the Mustard Gas Bar and Grill and the Trench Foot Spa Experience, but I have a feeling that glowing hearts might not warm to such authentic period detail. The idea seems to be that we should remember the wars, just not the gruesome bits.
It’s going to be a chest-beating few months leading up to the centenary of the First World War. Two years ago, the British government, then in full austerity mode, announced it had found £50-million behind the seat cushions for commemorative events, which Prime Minister David Cameron likened to the celebrations of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. (This provoked the waspish journalist Jeremy Paxman to retort, “Only a moron would celebrate war.”) A new £2 coin featuring the famously stern face of Lord Kitchener has already endured much mockery.
Military memorials are notoriously tricky, considering how freighted they are with cultural and political weight. It is nearly impossible to answer aesthetics, historical demands and the fluctuations of taste all at the same time. The Canadian Airman’s Memorial in downtown Toronto is officially named Per Ardua ad Astra, but everyone living in the city calls it Gumby Goes to Heaven. Dubliners, saddled with a towering memorial to an English naval hero, glowered at Nelson’s Pillar until the IRA finally blew it up in 1966.
In London, artist Jeremy Deller entered a competition to provide a sculpture for the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. (The other three feature statues of forgotten military men.) His proposal, called Spoils of War, was the burned-out wreck of a suicide bomber’s car from the war in Iraq. Not surprisingly, the public vote went to a less inflammatory option, although a version of the sculpture now sits in London’s Imperial War Museum.
There are military monuments that are intensely moving. I visited the National War Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on a frosty night in Ottawa this winter and stood silently with a small group of other tourists, until we all walked away – having shared something without saying a word. To visit the Vietnam War memorial in Washington and watch people running their hands over the names of the dead is an unforgettable experience.
That memorial was hugely controversial in its day: too bleak, too sombre, not sufficiently martial. It wasn’t the mother of anything, except maybe despair. Its designer, Maya Lin, said she was deliberately trying to create a distance between the mourner and the mourned, “where you could never really fully be with the dead.”
The point was not to celebrate, but to question. “It was never going to be something that was going to say, ‘It’s all right, it’s all over,’ because it’s not.”