Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

3 April 2015

As far as capital cities go, Canada’s isn’t one that’s big on bold, monumental gestures. Arguably it could use a few. Perhaps just not the one that’s become a pet project of prime minister Stephen Harper.

The National Memorial to the Victims of Communism, planned for the ceremonial and administrative heart of Ottawa, has critics arguing that a long-term vision for the capital is being sacrificed to politics. Located a brief walk from the parliament buildings and next to the Supreme Court, the memorial features a bridge-like 12-metre-tall viewing platform that looks across the site at a folded-in triangular concrete plain. The plain is etched with images depicting historic Communist-committed atrocities.

Almost everything about the project has come under scrutiny, from the design and its message to its prime location and the secretive process that saw it into being. Critics include Ottawa’s mayor, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada and local members of parliament.

An architect who sat on the jury for the design competition conceded that the general quality of the submissions – of which there were only 20 – was “poor”, describing the eventual winner as “particularly brutalist and visceral”. Not unfairly, brutalist is the one word that gets bandied about most in appraisals of the monument’s form. Odd that, given its subject matter, it would seem to ape the very aesthetic quality most associated with Soviet architecture.

Even more contentious is the monument’s siting, raising questions as to whether the location’s primacy of place might befit something more reflective of a universal Canadian experience. As the architect Shirley Blumberg told The Globe and Mail newspaper, “If you come from another country and look around, you might think that we’d thrown off the yoke of communism. And that’s not our history.”

At the very least, proponents of the monument might have broadened their tent by dedicating it instead to the victims of all repressive regimes, whatever their political stripe, Communist or otherwise. Inclusive gestures, however, are hardly this government’s style. Harper seems determined to enshrine a sense of Canada’s place in the world within a peculiar Cold War context.

To compound the dubious politics of it all, the site was long ago slated to become an office building for the Federal Court – named, it had been proposed, after former Liberal prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Trudeau is the father, it should be added, of current Liberal leader Justin, and his legacy has been the bugbear of Harper’s political life.

It helps neither that Harper’s government has of late suffered an almost uninterrupted string of defeats in the cases that it has argued before the Supreme Court. Even as Harper has framed the memorial’s messaging as a tribute to Canadian rule of law and human rights, his frequently combative posture with the court makes its siting look all the more like a deliberate bit of nose-thumbing.

Christopher Frey is Monocle’s Toronto correspondent.

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