The Conservative government is shaking up the board of the National Capital Commission ahead of a key decision on the future of a controversial memorial to the victims of communism.
Five new board members were announced Wednesday and most have Conservative connections. The board will vote Thursday on whether to break ground near the Supreme Court of Canada in preparation for the monument, even though a final decision on the project's design is still months away.
Pierre Poilievre, the minister responsible for the commission, said in a statement that the vacancies required "the most qualified and experienced individuals to ensure the National Capital Commission continues to represent all Canadians" and he is pleased they accepted the challenge.
The commission is a federal Crown corporation responsible for key federal lands and events in the national capital region.
The five new members include former Ontario provincial Progressive Conservative cabinet minister Brian Coburn and Basil Stewart, the former long-time mayor of Summerside, PEI. Mr. Stewart ran and lost as a federal Progressive Conservative in 1993 and there was speculation this year that he would run provincially for the Tories.
Other appointees include Lisa MacDonald, the chief administrative officer for the Town of New Glasgow, N.S., who regularly appeared at local events with Conservative minister and area MP Peter MacKay. Another new appointee, Victor Brunette, is a forestry expert from Gatineau. Mr. Brunette could not be reached, but a man by that name is listed as a member of the Pontiac federal Conservative riding association.
Carol Elaine Ashfield Loughrey of Fredericton was named to the Order of Canada in 2004, after a long career as an accountant, provincial comptroller, deputy minister of education and academic at the University of New Brunswick. Elections Canada records show she donated $300 to the campaign of Conservative MP Keith Ashfield in 2008.
Three of the appointments are effective immediately while Ms. MacDonald and Ms. Loughrey start July 1.
"The question is, are these new appointments there simply to make sure this project is rubber stamped?" asked Ottawa Centre NDP MP Paul Dewar. "If that's the case, this will be even a wider controversy than it already is."
In response to public objections to the proposed size and look of the anti-communism monument, the commission is expected to unveil new plans Thursday that are smaller than previous designs. The plans that will be presented are not considered final and more changes are expected before the board is asked to vote on a final look for the monument.
However, the National Capital Commission does not appear to be backing down in the face of objections over the location. The board will vote Thursday on whether to begin decontaminating the site. If approved, work could begin on digging up the existing space to prepare for the construction of a monument that has not yet received approval.
"It's hugely premature," said Barry Padolsky, an Ottawa architect who has organized a campaign by several professional organizations in opposition to placing the monument at that location.
"It looks like they certainly are using the excuse for decontamination to advance the agenda of the memorial on that site."
The site is one of the most controversial aspects of the project. The prime location on Wellington Street immediately southwest of the Supreme Court has long been planned for a new Federal Court building. The space is currently a grassy square bordered by trees and parking spaces.
Original plans for the monument featured large concrete slabs that would reach a maximum height of 14 metres, meaning the structure would be taller than the National War Memorial which is further east. The Globe reported in March that those plans had been reduced to a maximum of 12 metres. The latest monument design to be announced Thursday is expected to be even smaller.
Critics argue that the size and location do not fit with the history of Canada. The monument is popular with groups representing Canadians who come from former communist states. The project has been heavily steered and promoted by Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney, who has long been tasked by the Conservative Party to gain new support in Canada's ethnic communities.
Ludwik Klimkowski, board chair for Tribute to Liberty, a charity created to fundraise and advocate for the monument, said Thursday that he supports the changes that have been made.
"I'm very happy with the modified plans," he said in an e-mail. "They reflect our willingness to be fully engaged in the design process and provide a tremendous opportunity for all Canadians to claim the ownership of the memorial."
While the federal NDP and Liberals initially supported the project, the parties have since said that the monument should be built in a different location.
The NCC's chief executive officer, Mark Kristmanson, acknowledged in a radio interview this week with Ottawa's CFRA that the looming election is a factor in the debate.
"We're in an election season. This is a vulnerable topic," he said.
Dr. Kristmanson said Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mr. Poilievre, have made it clear that the monument should be built on that location. He said it will take "weeks if not months" for the plans to be ready for a final vote by the board. He noted the next meeting is in September.
"It's our job to get it across the finish line in as noble and as dignified a way as is required by the importance of the site," he said. "I think reasonable people looking at it will see that it's evolving in the right direction."
With a report from Chris Hannay