Another question for Trudeau: What to do with Mother Canada?

Early signs bode poorly for the Mother Canada project—’I’m not sure what a monstrous statue would do to enhance the beauty that already exists,’ says one Liberal MP.

(Never Forgotten National Memorial Foundation)

(Never Forgotten National Memorial Foundation)

The first days of a new government inevitably spell the last for the past regime’s favoured projects, as the Trudeau Liberals are enthusiastically demonstrating. A proposed jet runway at Toronto’s island airport is already on the scrap heap, while a grandiose plan for a sprawling memorial in Ottawa to victims of communism is under ministerial review.

The next potential target: the Never Forgotten National Memorial—better known as “Mother Canada.”

This is the controversial proposal to erect an eight-storey statue honouring Canada’s war dead on a headland in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, which would feature an interpretive walk and an expanded parking area along Nova Scotia’s iconic Cabot Trail highway. The female figure would face east with outstretched arms from a rocky outcrop in Green Cove—an echo of the famous monument to Canadian soldiers at Vimy Ridge, France. An interpretive centre, snack bar and gift shop could be added in subsequent phases.

The brainchild of Toronto businessman Anthony Trigiani, Mother Canada had found favour among the Harper Tories, because she encapsulated values underpinning their political brand: history, military and private-sector initiative. The $25-million cost of construction and upkeep was to be mostly funded by a non-profit foundation with a list of corporate backers, and, if crews broke ground this fall, it was possible to imagine an unveiling by July 1, 2017, the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

But the project has met stiff opposition on environmental and aesthetic grounds. Critics say it is ill-suited to the surroundings, and conflicts with Parks Canada’s mandate to protect the natural heritage of the country’s special places. A local group trying to stop it, Friends of Green Cove, claimed the fix was in from the start, noting that Parks not only approved use of the land back in 2013, but kicked in $100,000 to fund a visitation projection and a website about the project. Now, with the change in government, opponents have renewed hope, says spokesman Sean Howard; not long after Justin Trudeau named his cabinet, they dashed off a beseeching letter to the new environment minister, Catherine McKenna, who has responsibility for Parks Canada, to intervene.

So where do the Liberals stand?

Well, they’re Liberals—which is to say, flexibility is their brand. And this is fraught territory, with the prospect of future tourism jobs in an economically challenged region, not to mention the risk of appearing ungrateful toward those who fought and died. A spokeswoman for McKenna says the minister is aware of the issue, and the concerns it has raised. But she hasn’t been formally briefed on it, says Barbara Harvey, because she’s taken up with preparations for the climate summit in Paris.

On the whole, though, early signs bode poorly for the project’s supporters. Liberal MP John McKay, who handled environmental issues for the Grits during the campaign, has criticized Conservative “meddling” in the project, saying there’s been insufficient consultation and environmental assessment. Scott Brison, the party’s senior MP in Nova Scotia, had his name removed from the list of “honourary patrons” of the Never Forgotten Memorial Foundation, the group backing the plan. (Honourary patrons are defined as those willing to publicly advocate for the project.)

Rodger Cuzner, one of two Liberal MPs in Cape Breton, has not taken a position on the project, yet voiced concerns about tinkering with the pristine area around Green Cove, telling the Halifax Chronicle-Herald: “I’m not sure what a monstrous statue would do to enhance the beauty that already exists.” He’s also on record opposing the use of public funds for Mother Canada, saying that all of the private money should be in place before the project gets the green light.

Even the Liberal member in whose riding the statue would be located is sounding equivocal—despite having allowed the Never Forgotten foundation to include him on its list of honourary patrons. “When we dig into this, maybe it’s not the right location,” Mark Eyking, the MP for Sydney–Victoria, told a reporter. “I don’t know. We don’t have all the details, and I’m sure the new minister, and whoever the deputy minister is, will figure that out.”

These notes of skepticism have buoyed opponents such as Howard, who, until the election, felt their case had fallen on deaf ears. “If Harper had won,” he says, “all indications were that Parks Canada would have been ordered to give a green light—probably this month.” Howard put little stock in a recently environmental assessment, now in the hands of Parks Canada, or in an ongoing consultation with First Nations.

Still, the Never Forgotten foundation hasn’t thrown in the towel. They, too, have dashed off letters to McKenna and other ministers, and say that nothing in their planning has changed since the election. “We’re aware of the opposition to this project, but, from the very beginning, we’ve tried to maintain a non-partisan position,” says spokeswoman Meg Stokes. “Our board and our list of honourary patrons include members of all three major parties.”

At the heart of their case is its low cost to the taxpayer. The foundation had asked for a grant under the Canada 150 Fund, a program to fund projects celebrating the country’s 150th birthday, Stokes acknowledges. But she stresses that its funding model does not depend on public money for construction and maintenance; once built, the site would be transferred to Parks Canada, along with an endowment fund to pay for upkeep.

While Stokes could not say how much the foundation has raised to date, she made it clear that the financial case for Mother Canada—like the environmental and aesthetic ones—hangs heavily on decisions to be made in the next few weeks. “We can’t go and ask for $25 million,” she says, “when we don’t know if the project’s been approved or not.”

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