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opinion

One of the great things about Cape Breton Highlands National Park is its isolation. It is 950 square kilometres of seriously beautiful forests, hills and coastline, stuck on the edge of forever. For the nearly 200,000 people a year who visit, its remoteness is surely one of its main attractions. But that remoteness is also one of the reasons not many people will kick up a fuss if a giant statue, arms outstretched, gets plunked in its pristine wilderness.

The statue in question is the proposed Never Forgotten National Memorial, a.k.a. Mother Canada, a towering, 30-metre monument to Canada's war dead, complete with café, a "Commemorative Ring of True Patriot Love" and a "With Glowing Hearts National Sanctuary." And a parking lot for 300 cars.

It will be built on a granite outcrop overlooking the sea, using private donations, with the support of the federal government and Parks Canada. It will be built, according to its opponents, without nearly enough public consultation or environmental review, and contrary to the mandate of Parks Canada, which is supposed to preserve the ecological integrity of lands under its stewardship.

"If they were talking about building in Banff or Jasper, this would never get off the ground," said Sean Howard, who runs the Friends of Green Cove, an advocacy group that objects to the placement of the memorial in the national park. His group does not object to the monument per se, but rather to its location: Putting it in a national park not only sets a bad precedent for other similarly outsized projects, but also threatens the sensitive ecology of Green Cove.

Earlier this month, his group's cause was boosted when 28 former senior executives of Parks Canada wrote an open letter opposing the monument to Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq. "We are very much opposed to the proposed location of this large memorial statue with its associated parking, restaurant and interpretive centre," the letter said. "It is not only inappropriate for a national park, it is in violation of the site's Wilderness zone designation as detailed in the management plan for the park. … in Nova Scotia there is no shortage of sites that can accommodate such a project. Green Cove is not one of them."

In addition, the former Parks Canada managers cast doubt on the limited environmental review that has been undertaken so far. There has been a two-week window for input from the public, two public meetings (neither of which had all the stakeholders present) and a "detailed impact analysis" from the engineering firm Stantec Inc., which the letter says is "too limited in scope."

The Stantec analysis concluded there would be limited environmental impact from the proposed memorial, and that its benefits would include attracting tourists. Mr. Howard of Friends of Green Cove questioned the neutrality of the report, considering that Stantec was commissioned by the Never Forgotten foundation and is listed as a partner/stakeholder on the foundation's website. "It's not a study," Mr. Howard said. "It's a sales job."

There is support for the monument from locals in Cape Breton (who would value the jobs created) and, more crucially, from the government in Ottawa, which values statuary that enhances its brand, whether it's a monument to the victims of communism or a memorial to the war dead. Never Forgotten, which is the brainchild of Toronto businessman Tony Trigiani, features the high-profile backing of supporters such as retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie and Justice Minister Peter MacKay. Its honorary patrons include Peter Mansbridge, Rex Murphy and Mila Mulroney.

That's a lot of important Canadians. Possibly they've all been out to that part of Cape Breton, and visited the national park, and believe that what it really needs is a giant, mournful stone matriarch reaching her arms across the ocean to the war dead at Vimy. And a cafeteria.

Possibly this is something other Canadians would welcome. Why rush the process then, hurrying it along so that it's all done and dusted before it's been properly studied? Why not wait for more reports of the proposed environmental impact? Why not listen to the 28 managers who once ran our national parks, and who think this is the wrong location and a bad precedent? It couldn't have anything to do with wanting to have the Never Forgotten memorial ready for our 150th anniversary celebrations in 2017, could it?

Hmm.… Anyway, Banff is safe. For the moment.