In April 2017, the Canadian government will announce the winner of a design competition for a long-planned Memorial to the Victims of Communism. Once chosen, work will officially begin to build the monument in the nation’s capital (Ottawa, Ontario).
The project was first proposed in 2008 by the Conservative (federal) government, in partnership with a charity called “The Open Book Group.” The group was encouraged by Jason Kenney, then Secretary of State for Multiculturalism, to submit an official proposal for the memorial so that it would not appear to be the Conservative Party’s “pet project.”
Since its approval in 2009, however, the project has been shrouded in controversy. Its original (designated) location, on “prime real estate” next to the Supreme Court of Canada, was selected by the Conservative government without going through proper consultation procedures, prompting accusations of backroom politics.
In addition, the size of the original design, a whopping 60% of a 5,374-square-meter-site, was widely deemed to be too imposing. Aesthetically, it was criticized as bleak and “detrimental to the dignity” of nearby Parliament Hill. Leftists, in particular, denounced the landmark as hypocritical (what about “victims of capitalism?”) and a ploy to stigmatize their politics. Adding fuel to the fire, in 2015, the Conservative government pledged $4.2 million for the monument, an unusually high contribution and well over the $3 million initially promised.
The Liberal Party has addressed many of these criticisms, since winning the 2015 federal elections. The memorial will now be built on a smaller, less contentious site and public funding has been withdrawn. As part of re-branding effort, its original design has been scrapped and “Canada, Land of Refuge” was added to the official title so as to resonate with more Canadians.
To be sure, there is the potential for historical representations, such as public memorials, to serve as sites of reflection and mobilization. But, the “Canada, Land of Refuge” project presents injustice as a fixed and separate reality, perpetuated by communists “over there,” in contrast with “Canadian” ideals, history, and politics. Though the memorial is meant to honor a national commitment to human rights, diversity, and refuge, contemporary realities do not necessarily add up to the ideal.
Since 2015, Canada has welcomed roughly 40,000 Syrian refugees. But, polls show that this is at odds “with what a majority of Canadians want” and that an increasing number of citizens are growing uncomfortable with “cultural diversity.” The recent mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque, which left six people dead, also points to a growing epidemic of Islamophobia (and white supremacy).
In terms of relations between the state and indigenous people, the government has failed to take the necessary steps towards rapprochement and is retreating from pledges to implement the “calls to action” recommended in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (which investigated Canada’s genocidal residential schools program). In the meantime, indigenous incarceration rates have surged to alarming levels.
As for its foreign policy, Canada continues to defend its arms deal with Saudi Arabia, a country with an egregious human rights record, in the name of economic and commercial interests. Canada also disregards international law by protecting Israeli settler-colonialism through international forums.
If such memorials are to have any meaning, Canadians should reinforce their ideals through actions, policy, and a willingness to recognize our own prejudices. Otherwise, the memorial will function as little more than an empty spectacle perpetuating national myths and diverting us from the task of confronting contemporary injustices.