A headless statue of Queen Victoria looms large in Quebec
The statue of Queen Victoria's head was blown off after dynamite was stuck at the base of the statue in 1963 in Quebec City. The explosion, which was attributed to the FLQ, and the statue shows the difficult relationship between Quebec and the monarchy
Her Majesty looks quite dignified for someone who's lost her head.
She's draped in a flowing robe and holds a laurel crown in her arm, cutting a regal figure considering her head was blown off by a terrorist bomb.
There are Queen Victoria monuments in cities across Canada and around the world. But the statue in Quebec City may be the only one that's missing its royal noggin, and its mangled body lies horizontal like a hospital patient in a conservation warehouse in Quebec City.
"This is a beautiful artifact, but it's very fragile," curator Vincent Giguère says as he leans in to examine the space where the queen's head would normally be. "It literally exploded."
As Canadians mark the Victoria Day holiday this weekend, the crippled statue in Quebec's capital city is a testament to Quebeckers' tumultuous history with the monarchy. It also suggests why the province chooses to celebrate something entirely different on Monday, designating the holiday La Journeé nationale des Patriotes.
The queen's headless body is safeguarded in a temperature-controlled room in the conservation centre of the Musée de la civilisation. Her head is on display seven kilometres away in the museum proper. Both are preserved by curators as tangible reminders of the violent upheavals of Quebec nationalism in the 1960s, culminating with the October Crisis of 1970.
"This is a material witness to the past. The fact it's damaged is what makes it so important," says Mr. Giguère, an art historian. "We have very few three-dimensional artifacts that let us speak about the FLQ attacks. That is what makes it rare and so important to the history of Quebec – and all of Canada."
The story of how the queen came to be separated from her head is a bit of obscure lore. The early 1960s marked the early stirrings of the Front de libération du Québec, whose members would shake Quebec with a wave of bombings and terrorist acts leading to the 1970 kidnapping of British trade commissioner James Cross and the killing of Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte.
At 2:57 a.m. on July 12, 1963, an explosion rocked Parc Victoria in Quebec City's Lower Town with a force so powerful, it was heard kilometres away. The statue of Queen Victoria, which had held court over the park since 1897, toppled from its granite pedestal.
"The head was found 100 yards away," The Globe and Mail reported, "and smaller pieces of the monument lodged in a building 500 feet from the spot."
An unnamed official from the Rassemblement pour l'indépendance nationale (RIN), a precursor of the Parti Québécois, issued a dark warning at the site in the morning. "Within a year, there won't be any of these statues left in Quebec City."
The explosion was attributed to the FLQ, though no one was ever held criminally accountable. The statue was carted away and left to languish in history's bin of discards. The body and head were occasionally put on exhibit – separately – but a proposal to unite them for Quebec City's 400 th anniversary in 2008 went nowhere. The queen could not be put back together again.
"The head and body don't fit any more," says Jérôme Morissette, an art restorer who worked on the sculpture before his retirement. "Putting the body back into shape is practically impossible. Fragments have been torn apart."
He says the assailants placed dynamite under the monarch's dress, creating a tremendous internal force that detached the head. "A single stick of dynamite would have been enough," he says.
The queen made for an obvious target for the FLQ, which saw in the monarchy a symbol of British colonialism. While members pushed their opposition into radicalism, feelings in Quebec toward the Crown have never been warm, and polls show Quebec's support for the monarchy consistently trails the rest of Canada's.
It's no surprise that the province found its distinct way to mark the federal holiday known as Victoria Day. To French Quebeckers, the monarchy remains a symbol of the British military conquest of New France, says sociologist Joseph Yvon Thériault.
"Celebrating the Queen, or Victoria Day, is like commemorating the conqueror," the professor at the University of Quebec at Montreal says. "The monarchy is a symbol of the conquest."
The sentiments help explain why Victoria Day, a holiday in Canada since 1845, has been called something else entirely in Quebec since the 1920s. At first, the holiday was known as the Fête de Dollard, after a 17th-century figure promoted as a nationalist hero for trying to protect New France against the Iroquois. His status lost its lustre as it emerged that Dollard had ambushed the natives and played a less-than-glorious role in the dispossession of Canada's Indigenous peoples.
In 2002, the Parti Québécois government of Bernard Landry passed a decree to rename the holiday after the Patriotes, 19th-century rebels who campaigned for constitutional rule and became symbols of francophone self-determination. They remain contentious emblems, too, and this week the Liberal government of Philippe Couillard refused to fly their flag over the National Assembly because he said the Patriotes had been appropriated by the sovereignty movement. Even made-in-Quebec heroes remain in dispute.
Whatever they call the holiday, Quebeckers will mark it largely the same way as other Canadians – by planting their gardens and inaugurating barbecue and black-fly season. They can do so because they live in the last country on Earth to celebrate Victoria Day. For that, even the queen would have been amused.