Why a War of 1812 monument doesn't belong on Parliament Hill

John Geddes on tradition and the Hill

Why a War of 1812 monument doesn't belong on Parliament Hill

Bruno Schlumberger/Ottawa Citizen

The two finalists to design a War of 1812 monument on Parliament Hill, who showed off models of their plans to the public for the first time in Ottawa this afternoon, faced a perhaps impossible task: respecting the Hill’s grand tradition for memorial sculptures while, at the same time, unavoidably breaking with it.

The history of public monuments around the heart of Canadian democracy began movingly in 1873, when John A. Macdonald—so shaken by news of the death of George Etienne Cartier that he broke down in tears the House—proposed that a statue of his political partner be erected.

The international competition for that commission was won, fittingly given Cartier’s pivotal role in bringing Quebec into Confederation, by a young Quebec sculptor, Louis-Philippe Hébert. Hébert went on to a groundbreaking career in public art in Canada, prolific enough for a full-dress retrospective at the National Gallery of Canada in 2001.

The high standard set with the unveiling of that first bronze in 1885 has generally been upheld. Cartier has been joined by 14 others over the decades, mostly prime ministers, plus a couple of monarchs, and a few other select figures in Canadian political history.

My favourite happens to be Robert Borden, cast by Frances Loring in a commanding posture suitable to a war leader. Many seem partial to the seated Lester B. Pearson, who is at ease enough that the bronze of his knee is worn shiny from kids, and sometimes their parents, hopping up to have their photos taken on the Noble Peace Prize winner’s lap.

What you will not find on the Hill is any monument (apart from a rather discreet row of plaques to fallen police officers) that fails to fit with the theme of Canada’s political history. These are central figures of our democratic saga. Other aspects of Canadian history are rightly memorialized elsewhere.

Against this backdrop we must now assess the government’s plan to plunk an imposing War of 1812 monument down on the very prominent lawn of Parliament’s impressive East Block. From the designated location, this new addition would look down on the National War Memorial in Confederation Square.

That alone should prompt doubts. Why would a separate monument to the 1812 conflict be installed up above the national memorial? After all, that stirring, somber marker to World War I, later rededicated to also honour the dead of World War II and Korea, has sufficed since its inauguration in 1939 to stand for our collective remembrance of military sacrifice.

Of course, a case for an 1812 monument somewhere can be made quite easily. But the planned location is highly problematic, and not only for its break with past Hill practice and awkward placing over the National War Memorial. It’s a patch of lawn sloping down from the East Block towards Wellington Street. The East Block itself is a far from neutral background: looming over the Rideau Canal in asymmetrical, High Victorian glory, it is arguably, after the Library of Parliament, the best thing on the Hill. Nothing should be allowed to detract from its neo-gothic mass.

I want to stress that the two finalists who discussed their designs today with all comers in the offices of the National Capital Commission seem acutely and properly aware of these challenges. Each sounded daunted by the East Block and sensitive to the National War Memorial.

Adrienne Alison’s design features figures of seven 1812 combatants in a circle. She said the dark metal she chose is meant to echo that of the nearby war memorial. Her group is tightly clustered, Alison further explained, rather than spread out, to respect as much as possible Hill’s sculpture tradition of mainly compact, lone figures.

Brian Cooley’s design features 20 bronze figures, ranging from First Nations warriors, to British infantrymen, to French Canadian voltigeurs, arrayed in two lines. He said their muskets are pointed up to mimic the spires on the roof of the East Block above, while gaps between them intentionally frame views of the National War Memorial below.

The care Alison and Cooley brought to their work is impressive. Neither design, I expect, would strike many Canadians as unattractive. But that should not be the standard applied here, as the government ponders its final choice. Either of these designs, and particularly Cooley’s, would be larger and more visible than any other monument on the Hill. And the subject matter is, as I’ve argued, jarringly unlike anything else there. The government has not made the case for this abrupt departure.

There’s no point rehashing the Conservatives’ broader push to elevate the War of 1812 in popular imagination, largely through TV commercials. Who’s to say which episodes in our history most need hammering home?

But the question of what monuments belong around our beautiful Parliament Buildings is more easily answered: statues of political figures. Reminders that democracy requires individuals to rise to the calls of public service and leadership. There are other places to remember war. Indeed, the best is just across Wellington Street in Confederation Square. Parliament Hill’s tradition is different and well worth preserving.


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