Thursday, 28 May 2009

The Valiants Memorial: Tribute to Cultural Amnesia

Even I failed to notice for far too long.

In late 2007, whilst sauntering across Confederation Square, I was shocked to encounter a series of bronze statues and busts that seemed to have sprung out of the earth overnight. They comprised the new "Valiants Memorial", and they had apparently been there for over a year. Officially unveiled in November 2006, the fourteen larger-than-life-size monuments were commissioned three years earlier by the so-called Valiants Foundation (a motley crew of scholarly and civic potentates) and cast by two Canadian sculptors. The fourteen selected historical personages were meant to embody something very specific. The National Capital Commission puts it this way:

[The statues] become a kind of pageant of our past, showing how certain key turning points in our military history contributed to the building of our country. The memorial is therefore intended to acknowledge and honour the role that military participation, and the men and women who contributed to that participation, have had on nation building.
The memorial's own website (for, nowadays, everything has a website for at least fifteen minutes) says that the statues are there to honour "fourteen valiant men and women, representing many others, who gave outstanding wartime service to Canada during the last four centuries". Now, I do try to keep up with local current affairs, but this project eluded my attention completely during its three-year gestation. There they stood--as if alive--in their grand, massive impassivity. They're quite beautiful, really, though a tad on the socialist realist side. Sue me; I'm a classicist: I expect some stylisation. I don't see the edifying power in the uncannily life-like rendering of Arthur Currie's gaiters.

In a way, this was a wish come true: finally, the nation's capital found the visionary wherewithal to grace itself with monuments to some of the people who have given us our stellar military history--stellar in its humane restraint no less than in its tradition of victory--a history far more praise-worthy than the lamentable chronicle of petty expansionist territorial thievery and banana-republic busting that the southern republic takes as meta-Napoleonic feats of martial achievement.

It was undeniably thrilling to see relative unknowns like the Loyalist John Butler and French-Canadian 1812 hero de Salaberry get their due beside old favourites like Laura Secord (here disappointingly represented as a comely young woman, as cheesy myth would have it, when she was actually well into her thirties during the war).

As the glow of novelty faded, though, I began to find legitimate cause for quibbling. I read the memorial's inscription, "No day will ever erase you from the memory of time," and thought its aspiration absurdly over-optimistic given that so many of the statues were of people who were already erased from Canada's memory--people such as Paul Triquet and Andy Mynarski, both eminently worthy of memorialisation, certainly, but who now live only in the memories of their families and military historians. We are given Sir Arthur Currie, a very able technocrat and the spiritual father of the Canadian Corps, but a man who never experienced one minute of actual fighting and whose achievements couldn't be more perfectly irrelevant to 98% of the Canadian public.

Then I started to notice the bizarre omissions: no Billy Bishop, perhaps the greatest Allied flying ace of the First World War; no Richard Rohmer, the fighter pilot who put Erwin Rommel out of action and thus contributed immeasurably to the success of D-Day; no Guy Simonds, Field-Marshal Montgomery's favourite general-staff officer, the man widely regarded as the most innovative and effective commander during the Normandy campaign.

I thought these lapses odd, coming as they did from a committee boasting scholarly luminaries such as Jack Granatstein and David Bercuson. Then I remembered that Granatstein and Bercuson are among the most strident of Canada's self-hating élite, and I harboured dark suspicions that they had conspired to commit an act of historical sabotage by producing a memorial designed to be irrelevant to the very laypeople to whom it is allegedly intended to appeal.

I tried hard to banish these thoughts; their implications were too odious to contemplate. I gave the Valiants Foundation the benefit of the doubt; I supposed that the memorial was intended not just to commemorate but to educate, to drag from the shadows a series of worthy historical figures who deserve our attention. I immediately wondered, though, why obscure characters even more fascinating, even more reflective of fundamentally Canadian values and aspirations were not chosen.

Where is Richard Pierpoint, a man whose existence has been virtually expunged from our mainstream historical records? A former Senegalese slave, Pierpoint joined Butler's Loyalist Rangers during the Revolution, campaigned against the Americans with distinction, and eventually settled near St. Catherines. At the outbreak of war in 1812, he raised a company of black soldiers (though he was now over sixty years old!) which soon afterwards contributed to the crucial victory at Queenstown Heights.

This qualifies Pierpoint not only as a key figure in Canadian military history but as the first black military leader of consequence in the history of the Americas (as for the Western Hemisphere, Toussaint L'Ouverture beats him by a decade). It would do us no harm to be reminded that 1812 was not just a white man's war: for Canada, it was a multicultural, multiracial mission--Natives, English, Irish, Scots, Hessian Germans, former African slaves, Metis, and French-Canadians banded together in the common cause.

We're told too often that the war's issues were vague, that Canadians were uncommitted and passive, that the stakes were low, and that Canada's militia didn't really know what they were fighting for. Pierpoint and his people knew precisely what they were fighting for: they were free men of colour, repelling a horde of ruthless slave-driving tyrants who sought to extinguish their dearly won liberty. I think that's worth commemorating--that multiracial struggle on behalf of freedom and human dignity, one hundred and forty years before such a thing would be conceivable in the great republic their feats of arms eventually humbled. It's certainly worth more reverent attention than the done-to-death kitsch of Laura Secord's exploit, which merely resulted in the strategically insignificant victory at Beaver Dams.

Anyways, those were my initial thoughts upon seeing the collection for the first time. It was only a month or so later, after passing by the memorial and casting it the briefest of glances on a handful of occasions, that it came to me. I actually stopped to let it sink in. I think we have all at least once in our lives felt the shock of re-emerging into consciousness after blurting an expletive to no one in particular whilst in a momentary trance.

I could not recall which expletive I chose to hurl as I awakened, but I was still reeling at the fact that had inspired it: this Valiants Memorial, erected to "represent critical moments in our military history" and to show how "certain key turning points in our military history contributed to the building of our country" is missing two military footnotes, two of our historical bit-players. You history nerds out there may have heard of them: Generals Louis-Joseph de Montcalm and James Wolfe. Those punks ring a bell?

Christ Almighty. We really are that pathetic. Everywhere else in the world, the Plains of Abraham really happened. In Canada's capital, though--in the very place set aside to celebrate its nation-building military heroes--the event that led to the establishment of the Anglo-Canadian fact, the event that arguably made the American Revolution inevitable and thus represents one of the most significant battles in Western history, did not occur.

Neither Montcalm nor Wolfe died, like the men and women of our Afghan battle-group are dying, in a foreign, unloved land on behalf of spoiled, avaricious élites for whom war is a deliciously diverting board game. No. They never even existed at all. Would any another Western nation stoop to a Stalinist revisionism this incandescently puerile? Would an American foundation dare to erect an equivalent national memorial that excluded George Washington? Could the Valiants Foundation not at least have paired this non-sequitur of omission with one of commission--perhaps a huge statute of Donald Duck in full khaki WWII battle-dress with Cameron Highlanders shoulder flashes?

What will it take for the stewards of Canada's cultural memory to realise that we Canadians can handle our history, that we are prepared to encounter it in all its beautiful, awkward, perpetually newly discovered incommensurability, and that sanitisation is nothing more than squalid historical vandalism?

Jack Granatstein, who has spent a decade whining about the "killing" of Canadian history, has just kicked the history he claims to love into suffering a monumental spontaneous abortion in the middle of the nation's capital. Meanwhile, in his spare time, he's been kicking the nation he claims to love into cringing Manifest Destiny subservience. Let's hope this fiasco finally drives a stake through the black tar-coated heart of Granatstein's waning scholarly reputation. If he is made to shut up at last, perhaps this disgrace will have been worth it.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Mélange Adultère: Part Four

Sloth Makes Waste:

The extravagantly titled Transport, Infrastructure and Communities Minister John Baird recently yapped excitedly about his expectation that federal infrastructure funds will flow "ten times faster than anything in the modern era". That's a relief, because the Building Canada Fund his government created in 2007 to dole out infrastructure money to municipalities has, so far, transferred precisely nothing: breaking its funds-disbursement speed record might just be something this government can do.

I was amused to hear Baird explain why he sees no need to conduct strict oversight of the way infrastructure funds are spent: he's not worried, he says, because provinces and municipalities must provide matching funds for their federal money--an obligation which apparently provides "the biggest form of accountability" conceivable. Thus, a senior member of Canada's ostensibly "fiscally conservative" party maintains that the optimal agent of governmental accountability is another level of government and that governments become reliably self-policing whenever they are forced to spend money in order to get more money.

I wonder--is the term "fiscally conservative" really something that this party believes it can claim unironically, or are they aware that it's become merely the punch-line of a sick joke?

The West Wants In (To The Trough):

Just because you allow a barely-staffed "commission" to sit idle whilst funnelling a million tax-payer dollars into its inertia does not mean you can't violate the principles on which it was established in order to toss out partisan pork to under-qualified courtiers.

Only a few years after elevating himself to Canada's pontificate of political moral supremacy and waging an electoral campaign full of ad urbis et orbi fulminations against government waste and arrogance, Stephen Harper invited a lorry-load of his ideological confederates to dip their biscuit faces into rich, thick tax-funded gravy. None declined the honour, though I am sure they all retain their commitment to their libertarian, anti-government ideals.

I love the statement from the PMO on the matter:

"...a spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office says the posts went to qualified candidates, and that their partisan activities and friendships with Harper should not exclude them from the jobs".
One is struck by how radically different this exculpatory whine is from the rote statements issued by Liberal PMO's down through the decades; for instance, it contains the word "Harper" rather than "Trudeau", "Turner", "Chrétien" or "Martin". If you don't think that's a huge difference, you're clearly with the terrorists. And you're probably gay. You no doubt also speak passable French.

“Just Because I'm The Minister Doesn't Mean I Have To Do Stuff”:

Minister of Defence Peter Mackay assures us that "the federal government is constantly looking at[sic] ways to improve search and rescue response", except where the need for improvement is obvious and pressing.

Should a transit point for hundreds of heliborne offshore oil-rig workers--a place that witnessed the deaths of seventeen men in a tragic crash a few months ago--be given a dedicated search-and-rescue helicopter? Maybe. Minister Mackay doesn't know. Moreover, he says, it's not his problem: it's the Armed Forces' decision to make. "I guess that's a judgment call that the military make based on the information that they have," he bleated.

Astonishing. Harper's tin soldiers are proudly political about sending young men and women to Afghanistan to die defending a corrupt Islamist narco-state; it's personal to them--a crusade, a vendetta. When it comes to their sedulous patronage of warlords and Talib fellow travelers, offered with a smile from the ivied ignorance of the Centre Block, they show fearless leadership indeed.

When it comes to providing security to their own citizens, to hard-working tax-payers doing some of the world's most dangerous jobs on Hibernia's oil rigs, Harperoids will let faceless, irresponsible, non-executive bureaucrats make the key decisions. After all, the Canadian military cannot be expected to do everything: it can't prop up Hamid Karzai's rule over Kabul's suburbs and prevent needless catastrophes by providing a minimum standard of search-and-rescue capability to its own people. Let's keep our priorities straight: warlords first; Canadians second.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Mélange Adultère: Part Three

Following journalistic convention, I shall now make brief reference to a number of scandals, both real and manufactured, using a flogged-to-death suffix borrowed from America's most notorious--though hardly most serious--political débacle.

Appointmentgate [though I also like "Appointmentscam"]:

Stephen Harper's undertaking to have all candidates for federal office vetted by a non-partisan appointments commission was not just a good suggestion; it formed part of the Accountability Act, arguably the centrepiece of the government's legislative agenda so far.

Of course, the commission's establishment hit an immediate snag when (and please read this slowly) Harper's choice of commission chairman turned out to be a purely partisan selection--namely Gwyn Morgan, a CPC-friendly Alberta oilman.

Naturally, the Opposition declined Harper's generous offer to allow a CPC hack to superintend a non-partisan process, and the commission went into limbo. More pressing matters, such as begging FOX News for interviews, have prevented Harper from proposing another candidate for the chairmanship, and he seems unconcerned that a crucial component of his own law remains unfulfilled.

In Harperland, though, an idle commission can still be mightily expensive. The appointments non-commission, which has yet to deliberate a single case, has already cost taxpayers more than one million dollars. Sure, that money could have gone to hospitals, our Afghan battle-group, or our lamentably outgunned navy and air-force, but health-care and military bureaucrats are notorious wastrels. Much better to keep the cash on Parliament Hill, so that a "skeleton staff" (made up almost certainly of the cousins, nieces, nephews and psychic hairdressers of CPC M.P.'s) can sit on their powdered asses tooling around on their Blackberries or, when the mood strikes them, watching from the House gallery whilst Harper's drones drivel endlessly on about their fiscal rectitude.

It's not quite Adscam, but it'll do. If you prefer, though, just keep watching that bright shiny thing.


As you'll recall, Harper made a slew of preposterously partisan Senate appointments early this year, every one of which so hysterically unfit for legislative office that it seemed part of a plot to push Canadians' loathing for the Senate even lower than it is, down to the level where Harper's appointment of a paraplegic groundhog suffering from tertiary syphillis would arouse nothing more than mild bemusement.

Among this clownish crew was one Patrick Brazeau, former head of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, a federally funded organisation. Pursuant to Harper's passionate commitment to diversity, Brazeau's appointment brought into the Senate a member of a criminally neglected and heavily oppressed community--those who like to party, chase skirt, and drive Porsches on the public dime while damning the ethics of their peers and, bien sûr, loudly endorsing the CPC. He brings with him the wealth of thirty-four years of life experience--thirty-four glorious years: he's all of ten years away from chugging ice-cold Molsons with his frat buddies on ten-cent-wings night down at the local Hooters.

Brazeau's provincial sexual harassment case has been kicked up to the federal level, and the senator will soon be explaining to a federal panel why he thinks the complainant is upset over what he describes as "inappropriate text messages and phone calls". I just hope he doesn't overdress for the occasion:

Really, I just love the "Atlantic City mafia" look he's rockin' here, but I doubt if the commissioners will. Note to Patrick: lose the pink stuff, and buy a tie. You're a senator now, not a goodfella, and you'll still be a sex-machine with the chicks.


Too few Canadians realise that Ottawa toils under the most catastrophically inept poltroon ever to lope across the pages of North American mayoralty history. His name is Larry O'Brien. He is a well-connected CPC hack, who, despite running for mayor in 2006 on a drearily familiar no-tax-hike, tough-on-crime platform, has overseen chronic tax hikes and rising crime. He serves as living proof of the old adage: elect a neocon; watch your city/province/country turn to shit.

He is currently being tried on charges of having bribed an opponent to drop out of the mayoralty race with the collusion of several senior members of Harper's "New Government". John Baird is among those under subpoena. The Harper follies have been a morbidly fascinating spectacle, but this trial should be the spectacle to crown all spectacles--the prestige, if you will.

Transcending the squalor of the trial, though, is the sick-making outrage of O'Brien's mere incumbency. If old Ottawa--core, downtown Ottawa--had had its way, O'Brien would still be running his cute little temp agency. It was the suburbs who wafted this ill wind into City Hall. It was the politically illiterate Hummer jockeys of Nepean and Barrhaven who foisted this jesting harlequin onto those of us who know better. As this chart shows, we voted for Alex Munter (while praying that he would overcome the oft-fatal political handicaps of being smart, serious, and well-informed); they voted for the guy who spewed endless gibberish about Munter being a typical tax-and-spend "lefty" (yeah--he ran Kanata for years; a classic Stalinist move). What we got was a civic leader who thinks being arrested is "rock-star" cool.

O'Brien's election brilliantly exemplifies the need for Ottawa's de-amalgamation. I am no longer willing to allow suburbanites, hypo-urbanites, and infra-urbanites to inflict their masochistic, anti-civic irrationality on a people for whom the urban core is home, not just something seen from behind an office window a few hours a day. If you can hear the Peace Tower chimes from your home, you're an Ottawan. If not, you may have your own urgent neighbourhood matters to attend to--where to put the next Future Shop, whether to let the golf course expand its parking lot, whether to allow the developers to tear down the church and make way for a new Costco--but you've got nothing of significance to say about what my city should look like. If you gave a shit about it, you would live in it.


Because Barack Obama did something vaguely "French", we now know exactly how morally and intellectually bankrupt American conservatism has become.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the leaders of the free world, a nation more trivial than which has never been and, pray God, will never be.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Ignatieff Ignited!

"In Canada, ideas are not needed to make parties, for those can live by heredity memories of past combats". (James Bryce, Modern Democracies)

Last weekend, a not remarkable number of Canadians witnessed the conclusion of the desperate struggle for leadership of the Liberal Party between Michael Ignatieff and his only opponent, his Olympian ego.

The latter, though clearly the more organised, sophisticated and motivated of the two, acceded to a draw. Both creatures have agreed to co-rule their party, the Apollonian ego providing the spirit and the body providing its newly "folksy" corporeal form--liberalism with a human face, as it were (or Stephen Harper's "conservatism" with a pulse). They will likely form the next government, unless Stephen Harper has "Je me souviens" tattooed on both cheeks of his ass and performs a nude pole dance at Place-d'Armes to a dance mix of "Vive la Canadienne" sung by Pauline Marois.

The Liberals have thus re-connected with an important tradition, but not the one Ignatieff wishes to claim. He can invoke Trudeau all he likes; that Liberal icon would never have stooped to writing a loving paean to America's "Empire Lite", nor was he capable of committing the logical solecism of describing democracy and human rights as mere "grace notes" to something more significant, more beautiful, more awesome.

No. Ignatieff's paragon is that politically ingenious founder of modern Liberalism--William Lyon Mackenzie King. Their kinship is deep and abiding--unsurprisingly, given Ignatieff's rootedness in the soil of the mid-century technocratic Liberal élite King virtually invented.

King was Liberal royalty--the grandson of the Reform/Clear Grit rebel William Lyon Mackenzie. After the calamity of the 1911 election, King retreated to the States, where he made his fortune strike-breaking for J.D. Rockefeller, forging an admiring relationship with the magnate (and with America's capitalist leadership) that lasted a lifetime. Later, he published Industry and Humanity, a turgid tome of earnest Gladstonian bromides whose claims upon his conscience evaporated the minute he won his first ministry. This "serious" volume polished an already-shining intellectual reputation, secured through King's receipt of a Harvard PhD in 1909.

Upon his return to Canada and his 1919 leadership triumph, King began his sustained assault upon Canada's traditional moral, cultural and political anchors--relentlessly (and tediously) preaching the virtues of free-trade and continental integration. He found himself in substantial disagreement with American élite values only once--when, despite witnessing the evident dynamism of FDR's New Deal, he rabidly opposed even the slightest interventionist use of the state to remediate the Great Depression's disastrous effects, even going so far as to rejoice when the provisions of R.B. Bennett's modest New Deal-ish program were struck down by the British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as ultra vires. King remained publicly undisturbed by the sight of a Canadian government hobbled by the irresponsible fiat of a British Star Chamber (yes, this knight errant of "anti-imperialist" Canadian nationalism was a confused man indeed).

All the while, King fatuously transvested himself as the "populist" champion of Parliament and of the people against the "arrogance" of the Crown. King pursued this sacred mission by running away from the House after trying to have it arbitrarily dissolved (by the "arrogant" Crown, of course) and, more notoriously, by calling a plebiscite in order to be released from an iron-clad pact he had made with Canadians during the last election, just two years before.

Thus, in his exalted Liberal lineage, in his return from a protracted sojourn through the American academic/corporate star system, in his establishment of a scholarly reputation that would precede his candidacy, and in his meek acceptance of America's claim to be the world's only significant force for good, Ignatieff has managed to resurrect and inhabit the body of the Liberals' most successful leader. For them, this can only be a good omen. For us, the situation is, of course, more complex.

In any event, we now have a real contest. Not a contest of fundamental political philosophies, necessarily (which, in any case, has been a rare thing in Canada since the mid-'60's). Rather, the contest between Ignatieff and Harper is a contest between Kings, for Harper--superficially scholarly, rabidly pro-American and pro-corporate--is, too, but a new incarnation of King.

Harper enters this contest holding an unfair advantage: he has had the privilege of being an executive King rather than just a rhetorical one: in his fraudulent populism, in his abdication of responsibility by devolving contentious decisions onto others, in his sabotage of Parliament and rape of the constitution for partisan advantage, and in his basically regionalist vision, Harper has channelled King so uncannily that he could have served as one of King's own mediums.

Whatever choice we make in the next election, then, we shall get a King. Some may rejoice at this prospect. As for me, I am reminded of Eugene Forsey's quip about the Liberals' 1935 campaign slogan: "It said, 'King or Chaos'. We got both".