They won, and then they lost. Three years ago, a design competition jury selected a Quebec team of artists and designers for a new memorial in Ottawa: the National Monument to Canada’s Mission in Afghanistan. But in June, the federal government threw out the results of the competition and gave the commission to someone else.
Now the group who won the competition – led by Montreal architects and urban designers Daoust Lestage Lizotte Stecker, Quebec City artist Luca Fortin and former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour – want the job back. Rightly so. This subversion of a design competition is a serious blow to the integrity of art and design in Canada.
“This is creating a dangerous precedent in the world of contemporary art, architecture and for all procurement processes at large,” the architect Renée Daoust said in a recent e-mail. “We essentially want the jury’s decision to be respected, and we would like an engagement from the government that this will never happen again.”
There’s no real dispute about the facts. Four years ago, Canadian Heritage and the veterans’ ministry began a process to create a new monument across the street from the Canadian War Museum. This would “recognize the commitment and sacrifice of Canadians who served in Afghanistan and the support provided to them by Canadians at home.” Teams of artists, landscape architects and other urban design professionals were invited to apply.
The jury included a veteran and a representative of families of the fallen. In 2020 they chose a shortlist of five qualified teams. Each then prepared a detailed design proposal, and the jury was supposed to choose a winner based on a public set of criteria.
Then things got weird. They selected a winner, but Veterans’ Affairs did not announce it. In 2021, the ministry launched an online public survey to gain feedback on the proposals. Finally, in August, the verdict came out – or, rather, two verdicts. Team Daoust got a letter saying they had won the competition. But the government was giving the project to Team Stimson instead. In the letter, the ministry said the decision was based on the results of the online survey.
“We were shocked to be informed that the Government of Canada had chosen to award a contract to a team who was unsuccessful in the competition,” Ms. Daoust said.
“Our team was chosen by the jury as the successful one, at the end of a process in which we participated in good faith – a process that met all the professional best practices for this kind of exercise.”
This move effectively changes the rules of the competition in midstream. A competition is a process, quite common in Canada for public art, in which a jury of experts chooses a design based on qualitative criteria. The point is to deliver a sophisticated and nuanced judgment, relatively free from practical and political pressures.
Team Daoust’s proposal is abstract and architectural. Its “remembrance wall” is made from a lacelike lattice of limestone. A narrow axis cuts at an angle through the centre, framing the Peace Tower and the Canadian War Museum. In their supporting text, the designers cite Leonard Cohen (“there is a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in”) and liken the lace pattern to a burka.
Artist Adrian Stimson, who is Siksika and a veteran who served in Afghanistan, collaborated with public art practice LeuWebb Projects and landscape architects MBTW Group. Their design is organized around the broadly shared Indigenous model of the medicine wheel. A four-part circular structure “creates the feeling of safety” within a military base; themed literary, religious and didactic texts are engraved onto all four walls. And in the centre, four memorials consist of bronze helmets and flak jackets resting on crosses.
That last element is likely crucial. The representational sculpture gives this proposal broader appeal to the average person. Officially, the government attributes its decision to the results of the survey. Mr. Stimson’s design “was favoured amongst respondents,” Marc Lescoutre, a Veterans’ Affairs spokesperson, said by e-mail, adding that “the majority” of respondents were veterans or their families. “We are placing Veterans’ feedback on the finalist monument designs first. We appreciate and respect the work the jury members did in evaluating the finalist designs, their professionalism and personal experience.”
In an open letter, architecture professors Jean-Pierre Chupin and Jacques White say the survey was confusing – which is certainly true – and argue it served as a fig leaf for the “political choice” to select Mr. Stimson’s work. “There is even something contemptuous of the Canadian public in considering that a commemorative monument would be better served by literal images loaded with armour, helmets and shields,” they write, “than by pared-down images evoking human sacrifice through timeless plays of light and shadow.”
There’s an obvious parallel here to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, D.C. In 1980, her relatively abstract and architectural design was selected for a monument to veterans; some veterans’ groups and others opposed it. Ms. Lin’s work was realized, and a representational statue was built alongside it. Today, Ms. Lin’s black granite wall, which cuts diagonally into the earth, is a pilgrimage site. The controversy has been largely forgotten.
The Ottawa site offers little room for such a compromise. The Daoust and Stimson designs could not easily stand alongside each other.
There is only one adequate response, however politically difficult: The government must retreat and honour the jury’s choice. The Stimson team has done nothing wrong here. They also haven’t won.
Allowing the current decision to stand would, as Profs. Chupin and White point out, undermine any future design competitions. Why would an artist or architect take part in a process that could be collapsed at any time? Canada has a timid culture when it comes to public art and architecture. Competitions are crucial tools in protecting aesthetic and political freedom of expression.
But the tainted process also compromises the integrity of the memorial itself. It sends a clear message that Canada is a place where artistic integrity is not respected and where the rules can be bent at will. There is no honour for anyone in that.