Why does Parliament Hill need a monument to the War of 1812?

John Geddes explains why Canadians ought to be wary of plans for the slope by East Block

There are few patches of grass in Canada, maybe none, more prominent than the slope by Parliament’s East Block. The building itself is the most intriguing of our Parliament Buildings, asymmetrical and gloweringly gothic. Its lawn overlooks Confederation Square and the National War Memorial, the somber, affecting centerpiece of our Remembrance Day ceremonies.

It’s in this precious space that the government proposes to put a monument to the War of 1812. Today, just two finalists for the project, down from the expected short list of six, were announced by the National Capital Commission. They are Toronto’s  Adrienne Alison, who has made some conventional bronze statues, and Calgary’s Brian Cooley, who is best known for his dinosaur models. If you happen to be in Ottawa, their 1812 monument models will be on display for a mere two hours next Wednesday,  from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., at the NCC’s offices at 40 Elgin St, Room 702. A jury will choose between them. (Sorry, got that wrong: Don Butler of the Ottawa Citizen reports that  the winner will be picked by the government, and not by the jury that selected the finalists.) The thing is to be unveiled by the fall of 2014.

It is possible, of course, that when we see them, the designs of Alison and Cooley will banish all reservations about this project. Perhaps they will offer ideas subtly integrated with the East Block’s powerful mass, while creating a moving dialogue with the nearby National War Memorial, balanced respectfully against the elegant statue of Sir Wilfrid Laurier that now occupies the slope. But this would be an extraordinary achievement.

And unless at least one of these design proposals rises to that very high standard, this project should be dropped, or stopped. From the start, it was out of keeping with our tradition for monuments at the heart of our democracy, which up to now has logically emphasized memorializing key figures in our political history. There are 15 statues around the Hill, mostly prime ministers in bronze, but also the Famous Five, marking women’s rights, and Baldwin and Lafontaine, to remind us of our pre-Confederation push toward responsible government.

Why add a war memorial to that fine array, so popular with throngs of tourists? Apparently as an inescapable, eternal reminder of this Conservative government’s determination to elevate the War of 1812 in our national mythology. If the 1812 conflict must be given more official prominence, then by all means, add another marker to the National War Memorial, which was originally meant to commemorate the First World War, and later rededicated to the memory of the sacrifices of World War II and Korea.

Next week, we’ll see what this planned departure from Parliament Hill tradition would look like. It is not a place where novelty or eccentricity, or even blandly inoffensive decoration, should be tolerated.

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