The Pharaoh’s palace guard

Autocratic whim may be all right for monuments, but not for re-organizing Parliamentary security
The design for the Memorial to the Victims of Communism. (Handout/Studio ABSTRAKT)
The design for the Memorial to the Victims of Communism (Handout/Studio ABSTRAKT)

Of course, the French would have a word for major projects fuelled mostly by a leader’s vision, ego and limited respect for protocol: pharaonique, as in projets pharaoniques or grands travaux pharaoniques. It is accepted, I think without genuine enthusiasm, but with a kind of Gallic resignation, that each President of the Republic will reconfigure Paris according to his preferences. Napoleon III ran a wide boulevard between the Palais du Louvre and the Opéra Garnier, so he could get to the show each night without fuss. François Mitterrand decreed a glass pyramid at the Louvre, an Institut du Monde Arabe, and a very large library. Jacques Chirac built a museum of world Aboriginal art. Nicolas Sarkozy made a concert hall that finally opened last month in the hardscrabble 19th district, not far from the site of the Hyper Cacher grocery-store murders.

The merits of these projects are open to debate. None would stand up as a case study in respectful public administration. The boss circled a spot on the map, said, “Put it there,” and to hell with the rules or how many noses got put out of joint. And so we come to Stephen Harper. My colleague John Geddes is on a roll, chronicling the festival of fiat by which the Prime Minister has pursued the construction of Capital-precinct monuments to the Holocaust and to the victims of communism. No matter who objects. In no matter what number. John’s coverage follows his earlier articles about the Harper government’s problematic site and design for a monument to the War of 1812—separate from, and on higher ground than, the National War Memorial.

You can have various opinions about all of this, but what’s really clear is that Harper doesn’t want to hear your opinion. He wants those monuments built and he sees naysayers and yes-buts as obstacles. There’s precedent for this. In 1983, Pierre Trudeau decided Moshe Safdie would build a new National Gallery and Douglas Cardinal would build a Canadian Museum of Civilization on opposite sides of the Ottawa River. He didn’t say please. (He also overrode a jury to designate his friend Arthur Erickson as architect for a new Canadian embassy in Washington.) The resulting uproar distinctly resembled the one Harper has kicked up with, in particular, the victims-of-communism monument. The Royal Architectural Institute of Canada—the very group that is, Geddes reports, protesting the anti-communism monument’s placement and design—was “appalled” by Trudeau’s “totally unacceptable” process. “It looks like it was kind of a cooked competition.” As Douglas Ord has written, it was a weirdly autocratic way to build houses for the people’s art and history.

To which Trudeau would have said, as I’m sure Harper would say today: Screw off. Museums and memorials seem like odd objects of fixation, but I think it’s possible even without resorting to dismissive “toys for the boys” arguments to understand what motivated these two quite different men. Trudeau, Cardinal has said, saw the Gallery, the Museum of Civilization and the Charter of Rights as a humanist trilogy. And I cannot overstate how central the Shoah and the Gulag are to Harper’s view of the 20th century. There’s half a chapter on it in my recent book about the guy. His 2011 interview with my former boss Ken Whyte is one of the defining Harper texts, largely for the bit where he discusses, with specific reference to the Nazis and Stalinism, how “the real defining moments for the country, and for the world, are those big conflicts where everything’s at stake and where you take a side and show you can contribute to the right side.” That sort of mindset is not likely to make a prime minister open to discussions with Beverley McLachlin about feng shui.

I think Harper is resorting to the procedural bulldozer on these projects because: he does not expect a consensus on his plans; he is contemptuous of detractors; and because, at some level he may not even recognize, if he doesn’t act like as big a jerk as Pierre Trudeau, then he somehow won’t have been as much of a prime minister as Trudeau was.

But Harper’s manner is similar on another file far different from these monuments. And if his monument-building etiquette is open to question, his conduct in the reform of Parliament Hill security is wrong and outrageous.

I don’t know whether it makes more sense for the RCMP to run Hill security than for the Senate and Commons security forces to have the lead hand. My hunch is that it’s glib of Green Party Leader Elizabeth May to say the RCMP should be kept far away from Parliament because they couldn’t stop Michael Zehaf-Bibeau from hijacking a ministerial staff car and driving up Parliament Hill on Oct. 22. The Hill is a huge, open field and, before Oct. 22, most parliamentarians complained at any increase to security-related hassles there. Second-guessing the Mounties, based on the limited information available to any of us, is cheap sport.

But precisely so: None of us has serious information about what happened on Oct. 22. The video hasn’t been released or shown to parliamentarians. An Ontario Provincial Police investigation into the other forces’ comportment that morning hasn’t been completed and nobody knows what will become of its report if there ever even is one. In my cub-reporter days, I would have expected a highly publicized death under unclear circumstances to be the subject of a coroner’s investigation, followed by a public report. But, of course, Parliament Hill is where due process goes to die.

If there’s one place where fiat and the Pharaonic instinct should not carry the day, it’s Parliament. During Harper’s cumulative total of 17 years there as an MP, most of his colleagues belonged to parties that weren’t his. He’d have bristled, and rightly so, at any decision that his privileges as an MP should weigh less than those of any member of the temporary majority. He can go be secretive and mulish somewhere else. In the Centre Block of Parliament, he needs competent authorities to determine what happened, disseminate that information widely, deliberate in public over next steps, and reach a measured and lasting conclusion.

Everyone knows what’s going on here. The RCMP and Hill security are in a turf war, perhaps even with the best of intentions and the highest regard each for the other, over who gets to protect this prized bit of turf. Harper has decided the RCMP should win. Among the people whose blood must be boiling is Kevin Vickers, former boss of Hill security as Commons Sergeant-at-Arms. It’s hard to imagine he’d tolerate what’s going on. But he’s been sent to Ireland as Canada’s new ambassador. Funny how things work out.