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national

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

A detail of the separated head of the Queen Victoria statue on display at the Musee de la Civilization in Quebec City on Monday, May 15, 2017. The head of the statue was separated from its body after members of the Front de liberation du Quebec (FLQ) detonated dynamite on the Queen Victoria monument in Quebec City on July 13, 1963.

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.

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"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."

Art historian and museum curator Vincent Giguere examines the body of the Queen Victoria statue at the Musee de la Civilization archives in Quebec City on Monday, May 15, 2017.

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 decapitated head of a Queen Victoria statue is seen in this undated photo. The statue that lost its head in a bombing by radical Quebec separatists 40 years ago may reign again over a Quebec City park.

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.

How Quebec City’s statue of Queen Victoria came to be

The headless statue of Queen Victoria in Quebec City began life whole, an artwork created by British sculptor Marshall Wood. The monument was purchased by the provincial capital city and installed at the aptly named Parc Victoria on June 22, 1897, in the presence of some 20,000 people. It was an impressive turnout for a tribute to a monarch, although it also happened to be nearing the feast day of St. Jean Baptiste, Quebec’s patron saint, and the crowd was marking that celebration at the same time.

The bronze sculpture featured a young Victoria in a dignified pose, and appears to be cast from the same production as the one in Montreal’s Victoria Square, which survives to this day intact.

The Quebec City statue lasted until 1963, when it was the target of a bomb by the Front de libération du Québec. The monarch was not the first symbolic figure to fall into the terrorist group’s sights. About four months earlier, on March 29, 1963, sympathizers attacked a columned monument to James Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham, the historic battlefield. The column to the British military leader, who had defeated French forces in the fateful 1759 battle, toppled to the ground.

– Ingrid Peritz

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."

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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."

A police officer examines the decapitated Queen Victoria statue in Quebec City in this July 1963 photo. The statue that lost its head in a bombing by radical Quebec separatists 40 years ago may reign again over a Quebec City park.

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.

A detail of the separated head of the Queen Victoria statue on display at the Musee de la Civilization in Quebec City on Monday, May 15, 2017.

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.

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"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.

Museum technicians Helene Giguere, left, and Roxanne Bellemare, right, remove a protective tarp from the body of the Queen Victoria statue at the Musee de la Civilization archives in Quebec City on Monday, May 15, 2017.

Why the name ‘Victoria Day’ is not embraced in Quebec

The celebration of Victoria Day is unique to Canada. It remains the only country where a day named for the British queen is declared a federal public holiday, making it distinct among the nations linked by history to the long-reigning monarch.

The name is not universally embraced; in Quebec, it’s called la Journée nationale des Patriotes in honour of the 19th-century rebellion against the British colonial government. In 2013, a proposal to change the federal holiday to “Victoria and First Peoples Day” got the support of notables such as writer Margaret Atwood, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and actor Gordon Pinsent. But the idea never gathered steam.

The commemoration’s roots run deep. The statutory holiday was created in 1845, more than 20 years before Confederation, to mark Queen Victoria’s birthday on May 24. If it’s seen nowadays as the unofficial launch of cottage season, it was once a patriotic affair marked by ringing church bells, parading soldiers, and the sound of marching bands playing The Maple Leaf Forever. After Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, the holiday was mandated by Ottawa by law. In 1952 the holiday was set on the Monday before May 25 – ensuring that Canadians could benefit from a long weekend.

– Ingrid Peritz

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.

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