It only would have been astonishing had the proposal not caused somebody's knickers to knot themselves. We're talking about the National Memorial to the Victims of Communism that the federal government plans to build this summer in a small Ottawa park located kitty-corner to the Supreme Court of Canada. In the least surprising news of the year, many are opposed.
Critics say the design – a series of ever-larger grey concrete slabs onto which are etched documentary images of atrocities committed by communist governments (scenes of massacres and starvation, among other things) – is too bleak for the area. The critics include the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Beverley McLachlin.
Ms. McLachlin said in a letter to the deputy minister of public works last year that a memorial of the kind being proposed "could send the wrong message within the judicial precinct, unintentionally conveying a sense of bleakness and brutalism that is inconsistent with a space dedicated to the administration of justice."
Last week, 17 former presidents of the Canadian Bar Association jointly stated that it is "ill conceived to add an imposing sculpture signalling a strong political message, controversial or not, literally in the face of the very institution which is the final arbiter in Canada of disputes involving Canadians, the federal and provincial governments, and foreign litigants."
The criticism is awfully precious. It's not as if the Harper government is building a National Memorial To The Victims of An Activist Judiciary. A monument to the victims of some of history's cruellest and most murderous regimes would not cast a figurative shadow across the Supreme Court. Its presence could, in fact, reinforce the importance of Ms. McLachlin's "judicial precinct." Where some see bleakness, others will see a stark reminder of the primacy of human rights and of the critical role that an independent judiciary plays in a free society.
If there is a valid complaint to make about the location, it's that the issue of communist oppression in Europe, China and other places overseas, while worthy, doesn't represent a universal Canadian experience. It is not unfair to ask whether a site so close to the heart of Parliament Hill should be reserved for something that unites all Canadians.
But then that overlooks the real reason for the choice of location: partisan politics. This entire issue is a flare-up in the culture wars being waged between the Liberal Party and the Conservatives under Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Until 2006, the site was slated for a new Federal Court office complex called the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Judicial Building. The plan died under the Harper government. Casting about for something more to its tastes, in 2008 the government seized on a proposal by an organization called Tribute to Liberty that was raising funds to build a monument to the victims of communism.
The project has ever since been steered by powerful cabinet ministers, in particular Jason Kenney and John Baird (before he resigned), with the enthusiastic support of Mr. Harper. In May of 2012, Public Works and Government Services Canada allocated the site of the Trudeau building to the memorial, much to its supporters' delight. In 2013, Ottawa pledged $1.5-million to the project.
In a speech last May at a fundraising dinner for the monument, Mr. Harper talked at length about his government's support for Ukraine in the face of the ongoing Russian invasion. He then singled out, without naming names, former Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau for preferring "to see Canada sidelined, to see Canada serve as a neutral bystander instead of a principled actor" during the Cold War.
"Those who preached moral-equivalency and who said that Canada should learn to accept totalitarian communism as just another option. ... [Who showed] indifference in the face of the communist coup against Poland's Solidarity in 1981 and who pushed the so-called Peace Initiative of 1984" – a direct reference to Pierre Trudeau.
Canada was only redeemed, said Mr. Harper, when "one of my predecessors, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, stood shoulder to shoulder with the giants, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, President Ronald Reagan, and Pope, now Saint John Paul II, until the Cold War was successfully and decisively concluded."
What we have, then, is a well-meaning tribute to victims of communism that has been appropriated by the Conservative government as a prop in its constant effort to cast itself as tough on evil and on evildoers. If all goes as planned, the memorial will be dedicated this fall, at the height of the general election.
Is this what the people who first envisioned this memorial had in mind – being a historical prop in a contemporary culture war? The memorial would be better served by being moved to a less fraught location, and Ottawa should go back to planning a new Federal Court building on the site. The Brian Mulroney Judicial Building has a nice ring to it.