Monumental Magic — Harper’s A Magician When It Comes to Memorial to Victims of Communism

Controversy continues to dog (as it should) the proposed Memorial to the Victims of Communism, including revelations in the Ottawa Citizen that the country of Hungary (which is presently ‘dealing’ with mass Syrian refugees) is sponsoring over a $100,000 to the memorial.

Here, MATT HARRISON argues that the Memorial is also a clear-cut case of Conservative revisionism that will rewrite important aspects of the Canadian identity


This article was originally published in the September 2015 edition of OTTAWA Magazine

Misdirection is a magic trick of sorts. It’s a form of deception whereby magicians focus the attention of the audience on one thing in order to distract their attention from another. And like any good magician, the Harper government isn’t revealing any of its secrets when it comes to the proposed Memorial to the Victims of Communism. But whatever trick they’re using, it’s working.

It seems that everyone from architects to the media to city councillors is so focused on the where of the hotly contested monument (as of press time, next to the Supreme Court of Canada), few are asking about the why. Abracadabra!

Harper’s magic trick has been so successful that one wonders — insert conspiracy theory here — whether this was his (or John Baird’s) idea all along. A high-profile location will get everyone so hopping mad that no one will think to question the monument’s raison d’être.

Whether the Conservative government really does have its heart set on the proposed location for the monument or whether this is just smoke and mirrors is up for debate. Despite numerous news reports about the monument, there are plenty of unknowns. But we know this much is true: it looks like another example of the Conservatives taking the opportunity to rewrite Canadian history.

There is “a pattern of politically charged heritage policy,” said a 2012 letter written by the Canadian History Association to Mark O’Neill, president of the Canadian Museum of History. Back then, it was the Canadian Museum of Civilization, of course. The letter was in regard to the changes to the museum, as well as the War of 1812 anniversary campaign, and went on to say: “The highlighting of particular features of our past favoured by leading ministers of the current government … would be a highly inappropriate use of our national cultural institutions, which should stand apart from any particular government agenda.”

Likewise, “Canadian history has been conscripted,” stated Ian McKay, a Queen’s University professor of history who made waves with a 2011 lecture entitled “The Empire Fights Back: Militarism, Imperial Nostalgia, and the Right-Wing Reconceptualization of Canada.”

A 2013 Maclean’s article by John Geddes  points to McKay as one of many historians who charge the Conservatives with “promoting a narrow war-obsessed version of Canadian history” in order to counter what they see as a past trend toward a left-liberal interpretation of Canadian history that focused on social themes and regional history.

The government’s “neo-conservative narrative” has translated, or so critics argue, into re-enactments of battles, commemorative coins, and other patriotic brouhaha, yet only a third of Canadians supported the government’s take on the commemoration of the War of 1812, and only about 15 percent of Canadians “felt more patriotic as a result of the celebrations,” according to a 2013 Nanos poll.

To be fair, let’s look at the other side of that commemorative coin for a moment.

After all, it could be argued that events such as the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, the 100th anniversary of the First World War, and the 75th anniversary of the Second World War simply landed in the Conservatives’ lap because of timing, and these events, by their very nature, call for such things as re-enactments, coins, and a degree of flag-waving.

Charging Harper with being “war-obsessed” is more a result of happenstance than any insidious agenda.

Moreover, all these historical commemorations occurred within a short time span and all within the context of the Afghanistan mission and involvement against ISIL in Iraq. Lumped together, they undoubtedly do give the impression that the government is “war-obsessed.”

An obsession with war is hard to prove — at least concerning the rebranding of the museum and the way recent anniversaries have been commemorated.

However, when it comes to the proposed Memorial to the Victims of Communism, the deliberate name change is a clear-cut case of Conservative revisionism (perhaps the most dreaded of all “isms”), whereby a government attempts to reshape history in a specific, highly politicized way, even at the cost of sacrificing key Canadians and Canadian historical realities.

In brief, Tribute to Liberty — the charity group funding the memorial — proposed the monument without the word totalitarian in the name, as reported by the Ottawa Citizen’s Don Butler, who has been doggedly covering the ins and outs of this fiasco since day one. But the National Capital Commission was “unsettled” by the name, since it lumped Canada’s legitimate domestic communist party in with history’s totalitarian dictators. Tribute to Liberty finally agreed to include the word totalitarian in the title, but then along came Baird in 2013 and the word was expunged from the monument’s title.

If one ignores the fact that it will cost taxpayers at least $3 million, that its timing is conspicuous given the federal election, and that it will eat up precious public land, one might almost be willing to get behind the monument if the word totalitarian had been left in the title. After all, a good percentage of Canada’s population fled from dictatorships that were, indeed, totalitarian communist regimes.

But with the word totalitarian dropped, suddenly all communists, everywhere, throughout time, are responsible for the millions slaughtered by such dictators as Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot.

It’s ironic that Harper would choose to make this equation, since he’s an evangelical Christian.

As it stands, the monument would thus equate crimes against humanity with the acts carried out by Jesus’ apostles, since the first Christians acted in a manner that was most definitely communistic by sharing everything and selling possessions — even distributing the proceeds among the needy.

Harper has also been a stalwart friend to Israel — a country dotted with kibbutzim, which channel the spirit of communism through socialistic ideas and practices.

Closer to home, the revisioning of communism has profound implications for Canadians’ own history and identity.

Remember Norman Bethune?

He’s the celebrated Canadian physician who pioneered a medical technique for treating tuberculosis, developed mobile blood transfusion systems, and brought modern medicine to China when he served in the communist army fighting Imperial Japan in the 1930s. He has also had stamps issued in his name, been inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, and had his former home designated a National Historic Site of Canada. And he was a member of the Communist Party of Canada.

And what about the fact that Canada has had a legitimate Communist Party since 1921?

It’s the second oldest registered party after the Liberal Party of Canada. They were among the first to advocate for unemployment insurance, national health insurance, universally accessible education, and labour legislation — including health and safety regulations and a minimum wage for women and youth.

And let’s not forget about the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, which saw 30,000 Winnipeggers walk off their jobs in protest of businesses that made record profits during the First World War and yet paid their workers poorly, quashed any ideas of workplace representation, and forced their employees to work in dismal conditions. Many were communists, and some were killed by the RCMP. The event is remembered as an important moment in the development of workers’ rights.

Norman Bethune, the Winnipeg General Strike, and Canada’s political history are vital aspects of our identity that will be rewritten by the Conservative government if this monument goes through.

Especially worrisome is the impudence displayed by the government in handling this monument — it demonstrates a possible escalation in their attempts to project their slant on Canadian history.

What began subtly — the museum’s name change — has morphed into a brazen, bullish push to create a controversial, highly visible, and permanent structure, regardless of whether it rewrites Canadian history.

And even if the Conservatives don’t win re-election, their treatment of this monument sets a dangerous precedent for future governments’ handling of our history. Which is ironic, considering that rewriting or erasing history is the kind of thing that totalitarian communist regimes did so well.

Matt Harrison is the senior editor of Ottawa Magazine