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.

13 comments:

Ti-Guy said...

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.

You know Peter gives himself little cuts on his legs when you write things like that.

...anyway, back to reading your post.

Ti-Guy said...

Done. My only question is: what is it with clapped out bores like Granatstein making one last, glorious stand just at the onset of dotage? Or is it a manifestation of dotage? Or is it...Viagra?

Oh, who cares. Just die already. It's too late to change anything in any meaningful way. They should have thought about that while they were in their prime, whiling away the day on 3-cocktail lunches and 4 pre-dinner martinis.

Sir Francis said...

Ti:

They should have thought about that while they were in their prime...

Indeed. Unfortunately for them, they spent their prime in libraries and seminar rooms, a privilege they now consider the height of decadence--when enjoyed by others.

They didn't get their war. They never had a chance to prove they've got balls. Americans like Tom Flanagan did get that chance, but he preferred to run away and hang out in Canada's libraries and seminar rooms instead.

I think Granatstein is being motivated by the classic need of timid sclerotic clerical greybeards to feed off of the carcasses of the young men they send out to die on behalf of their sick GI Joe fantasies. They are carrion cowards.

Ti-Guy said...

I just never imagined they'd cling so desperately to their now-irrelevant ambitions nor, it seems to me, would want to bring down everything on their way out. What kind of psychosis is that? Irrational fear of death?

If so, bring on the euthanasia programs. It's breaking my heart to have to witness such existential terror.

thwap said...

Oh, I think Arthur Currie was a pretty remarkable guy. Bit of an anti-Semite apparently. A product of his times that way, but needlessly enthusiastic about it.

rumor said...

SF, wonderful read as always, and I always enjoy your explorations with Ti-Guy, too. One point: as far as my memory goes, those statues are a fair bit diminutive when I stand next to them; are you sure they're life-sized?

Another point is that I suppose we've probably passed each other many times out there and never known it. Of course, me being some nearly anonymous thrice-time commentator, there's no reason you *should* know me, but the same reasoning doesn't work the other way. Interesting.

Finally: haven't there been some serious questions concerning Billy Bishop's actual record? What did you make of that? I confess not being terribly well-versed about that.

Kel Morin-Parsons said...

Just a few points from Lady Francis here:

1. I, of course, have no idea of the criteria applied here, but it is fair to say that the Valiants necessarily represent a very, very small proportion of the men and women who could have been portrayed here. The line has to be drawn somewhere, and I am pretty confident that there was actually some reasoning behind the selection, even if we don't like it.

2. There are only two women represented here, one of whom, as mentioned, is the blessed Secord. I'm not going to say anything more about that, other than that at least she's not depicted as walking her cow. (And that I'm sorry that SF feels that a woman in her 30s can no longer be young and comely--but yes, yes, I get the message that a woman of that age in this era would have been more crone-like than her counterparts now.)

3. I'm not going to defend Bercuson at all, but I will speak up for Jolly Jack--I really, really think this is an unfair swipe at him (and I'm not a great fan of the guy, as SF knows). If he was involved in this project, he probably had little or nothing to do with things like the omission of W & M (come on, do we REALLY wonder about that? Canadians won't touch that "controversy" with a barge pole--and yes, that part IS pathetic), and God knows how many candidates for this installation there were before the final cut was made. I just wouldn't be quick to lay much of this at Jack's feet.

4. If you're worried about this man being forgotten, see http://mqup.mcgill.ca/book.php?bookid=2437

I am proud to say that the programme I run supported this work, which is forthcoming.

5. De Salaberry obscure? Surely not. I am far less Canadian than SF in a number of ways, and even I know who he is.

6. The statues are about 3/4 life-size.

On an admittedly tangential note, I'd like to point out that this memorial exists right beside our official war memorial, which is still one of the finest of its kind I have seen anywhere in the world. It is truly moving and beautiful, and I feel very Canadian in its presence.

The Korean memorial on the MacKenzie King Bridge, on the other hand, is a piece of crap. But that's for another post.

Sir Francis said...

Thwap:

Currie was certainly significant to our war effort organisationally and managerially, but valiant? I think not.

To me, valour requires literally dangling your balls out where the shrapnel is flying. Currie sat behind a desk. Like Eisenhower.

Heck, I'd rate Sam Hughes over Currie, to be honest.

Sir Francis said...

...are you sure they're life-sized?

The statues are on pedestals, and the busts are on plinths, which, to me, conveys at least the impression of a larger-than-life presence--which was the objective, one must assume.

I suppose we've probably passed each other many times out there and never known it.

I've lived here for fifteen and a half years, so I'm sure I've bumped into every Ottawan at least once by now. Ottawa is just that small a town.

...haven't there been some serious questions concerning Billy Bishop's actual record?

There have been questions, but I don't think they've been very serious. Frankly, flying aces on both sides were notorious for inflating their numbers, and it was very difficult to keep precise score, as many battles lacked reliable witnesses. But Bishop's tally of confirmed kills (over seventy, I think) is official and pretty solid.

Aeneas the Younger said...

SF:

While I certainly admire Currie, perhaps a better choice amongst the Generals would have been Major-General Malcolm Mercer - the highest ranking Canadian Officer ever killed and man who personally braved the front on many occasions.

Forgotten by many - but not by me.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
Malcolm_Mercer

Ti-Guy said...

I never forgot Malcolm Mercer, ATY.

Dirk Buchholz said...

Seems they overlooked Tecumseh & the Iroquois in general.Tecumseh not only played a major role in the war of 1812,but he and his Iroquois warriors held the line against the Yankees.In fact Tecumseh drew the proverbial line in the sand unlike the Brit's Proctor who had a propensity for withdrawal before the advancing Americans.
Indeed Tecumseh is often referred to as "the savior of Canada".
Odd that L.Secord get's publicly commemorated but not Tecumseh.
Her feat makes for a good story but the info she supplied was already known by the Brit's & Canadians.
Maybe some day the very important and vital role played by the indigenous peoples in the founding of Canada will be fully acknowledged,honored,and taught in the schools.

Sir Francis said...

Dirk:

Tecumseh! You're absolutely right. I'm ashamed not to have noticed that. That's yet another shameful omission.

The whole project is really just a huge fuck-up. Really--what were they thinking?