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09.30  The Rise and Fall of “Mother Canada”: Heritage Out on a Limb

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9:00, Dimanche 5 Juin 2016 (30 minutes)

This paper will examine the genesis, development, and current status of the Never Forgotten National Memorial, the centrepiece of which is a huge statue, to honour Canada’s over 100,000 war dead who did not return home from combat. Popularly referred to as “Mother Canada,” the over five-storey high structure of a woman with out-stretched hands is to be erected in Green Cove, an ecologically sensitive area, within the confines of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park located in northeast Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. The previous Conservative government embraced the project since its inception, mandated Parks Canada to set aside the land and provided financial contribution for research and promotional activities. 

The initiative became a major controversy with local residents, politicians, veterans, journalists, environmentalists, heritage professionals (including retired Parks staff), and attendant cultural organizations and interest groups across Canada and elsewhere, loudly weighing on whether or not the project should proceed. Debate has been heated and extensive but the project is currently in limbo as the Environment Minister in the newly elected Liberal government is expected to decide if the project will go ahead, require further consultation and/or modification or be cancelled outright. 

The project, an initiative of the Never Forgotten National Memorial Foundation represents the intersection of political interests, private patronage, aesthetic considerations and the very idea of what constitutes commemoration and why and where it is proposed. These factors point to the impact of heritage on the local community and on how a nation’s past is constructed and perceived. Consider, for example, two of the issues to be raised: first, mandating park land for the project of a non-profit foundation is an unprecedented action that potentially could be a model for similar privatization in public places, including other national parks and historic sites; and second, “Mother Canada” has become a pretext for debate on public art, specifically in this case how heritage development is bound up with shifting aesthetic sensibilities, not to mention environmental and economic dimensions. 

The paper will address these realities and conjectures while keeping abreast of the “Mother Canada” story as it unfolds up to the presentation at the conference. To these ends, the paper will draw on our previous work on the aesthetics of heritage; the notions of authorized heritage discourse advanced by several authors; and the wider literature on the politics of commemoration and on aesthetics. Whatever the future of this memorial, the paper concludes by presenting a critical alternative—portraits from “Since Their Service,” a multi-faceted recent exhibition of Canadian veterans still living who are, in the words of one participant, “forgotten but not gone.” This exhibition was not in opposition to the proposed memorial; it was inspired by a march of concern in 2013 in Cape Breton, in response to the closure of a federal office for veterans. It is thus a fitting, although unintended complement, to the Never Forgotten National Memorial with underlining the dynamics of change that materialize when the politics and aesthetics of heritage converge. 

Lon Dubinsky


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