What’s wrong with the colossal monument at Green Cove

In case you missed it, Cape Breton journalist Joan Weeks was on CBC’s The Current Tuesday morning with an even-handed account of the controversy over plans to honour Canada’s war dead with a colossal statue at Green Cove in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

Like so many initiatives of the Stephen Harper government, the project offends good public policy in several ways.

Accountability and Transparency: The project was conceived and designed in secret. It was presented to, and approved by, the Harper cabinet without public input or discussion. The belated exercise now underway, touted as a public consultation, has been limited to a pair of meetings in the tiny, economically depressed village of Ingonish, many of whose residents have been persuaded their community will benefit economically from the project. Even in Ingonish, the project has met significant minority opposition. “Consultation” has further been limited by promoter’s unwillingness to consider any changes to the size, scale, design, location, or ancillary elements of the proposed monument. 

“Mother Canada” at Green Cove would stand three six times taller than “Canada Bereft” at Vimy. Both owe their origins to Mater Dolorosa-style images of the Virgin Mary

Acquisition of Public Art: Good public art begins with a widely shared community purpose and proceeds through an open, public competition among artists who submit concepts for executing the work. Many such competitions are now underway in Canada. The concept for the stunning Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, came from an unknown, 21-year-old artist, who beat out 1,441 other submissions. By contrast, the enormous statue proposed for Green Cove was designed without artistic input of any kind, let alone competitive proposals. The businessman-promoter behind the scheme simply scaled up a similar (but better) statue at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France to three times its original size, lifted its head, and extended its arms outward. Public Art should not be designed in secret by the millionaire operator of a food packing business and presented as a fait accompli.

Inappropriate Scale:* Canada Bereft, the Vimy statue the proposed monument emulates, stands 20 about four meters tall and occupies a 100 117 hectare site. The “Mother Canada” knock-off soars to 60 metres was originally supposed to be 10 storeys high (about 33 metres, 108 feet) but occupies a site of less than one hectare. More recent statements by project proponents have scaled it back to 24 metres (79 feet). It will face the ocean and a few lobster fishermen, while turning its back on residents and tourists who pass by on the Cabot Trail. [Please see the correction at the end of this post.]

National Park Integrity: Canada’s National Park system is charged with protecting lands of national importance for future generations in perpetuity. On the rare occasions when the Government of Canada has turned over National Park land to other purposes, it has insisted on simultaneous acquisition of additional, new park land of equal or greater conservation value. Not so in this case. Cabinet secretly approved the repurposing of protected land with no quid pro quo. There are many equally dramatic sites, in Cape Breton and elsewhere, that would not require the repurposing of lands designated as a National Park.

Emotional Blackmail: Proponents of the project have repeatedly cast the debate as a choice between supporting or not supporting Canada’s war dead. Such invidious tactics do nothing to encourage rational debate or sound decisions. If World War II meant anything, Canadians ought to be able to debate public policy without one side impugning the other’s patriotism or reverence for war sacrifices. 

This project should go back to the drawing board, for a full, open, public planning process that follows well established practices for public art.

* [Correction]  The statue heights in my original post were incorrect, and have been changed in the “Inappropriate Scale” section above. Like many details about the proposed monument, the height of “Mother Canada” has been hard to pin down. As recently as last spring, project promoters put her height at 10 stories (about 33 metres), not 60 metres as I originally reported. At last month’s meeting in Ingonish, project proponents used the figure 24 metres (79 feet). I cannot find a precise figure for the Canada Bereft statue at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, but from examining photographs, it appears to be roughly 3.8 meters or 12-1/2 feet—not 20 metres as I indicated in the original post. So “Mother Canada” would be roughly six times larger than Canada Bereft, on whom she is modelled, not three times larger, as I had indicated. Apologies for the error. I am grateful to a reader North of Smokey for correcting it.