The memorial to communism in Ottawa is a poor example of public history
In September 2009, the National Capital Commission approved an application from a charity called Tribute to Liberty to build a commemorative monument in Ottawa called the Memorial to the Victims of Communism. Since then, this charity has been working closely with the federal government to realize the monument on a choice piece of real estate in the nation’s capital between the Supreme Court and Library and Archives Canada.
Although the memorial has many supporters, several prominent individuals have expressed their opposition to its construction. For example, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Beverly McLachlin in a September 2014 letter to Public Works expressed concern that the monument might unintentionally convey a sense of bleakness and brutalism “inconsistent with a space dedicated to the administration of justice.” Similarly, Ottawa architect Barry Padolsky sent an open letter to the prime minister stating that the site was in need of a “significant piece of architecture” rather than the memorial as it has been proposed. Recently, a Facebook group called “Move the Memorial” has popped up.
These prominent opponents of the memorial have, for the most part, based their arguments in aesthetic or purely locational critiques rather than taking a close look at the politics of the memorial. Although undoubtedly some members of Tribute to Liberty have the good intentions in remembering the victims of particular Communist regimes, which for some of them is a very personal matter, this memorial nonetheless has a very troubling politics.
As it is currently conceived, the memorial unfairly and intentionally paints everyone in history who believed in communism as a victimizer, keeps alive a tradition of Canadian innocence vis a vis our own history of nation-building by virtue of its symbolic location, and performs a historical erasure of two features of our political landscape since the First World War: the repression of leftist politics and its handmaiden, paranoid anti-communism. It is these troubling politics that provide deeply compelling reasons why the memorial, as it has been designed, should be reconsidered.
Background to the memorial
Members of the Conservative Party of Canada have been instrumental in this project from its inception. Ludwik Klimkowski, chair of the board of Tribute to Liberty, claims that the idea for the memorial came directly from the prime minister with strong support from then minister of multiculturalism Jason Kenney. In addition to high-profile Conservatives’ support, the memorial has also received significant public funding to the tune of $4.5 million. In the Ottawa region, it is rare that a sitting government originates the idea for a monument and acts as its main source of funding, according to Tonya Davidson, a professor from Ryerson University who has studied monuments in the capital region extensively.
Given these anomalies, it is perhaps unsurprising that in 2013, the government made changes to the way in which commemorative projects in Ottawa were considered and approved. The government placed greater control over the selection of sites and the design of commemorative projects in the hands of the Department of Canadian Heritage at the expense of the National Capital Commission (NCC), a non-partisan corporation made up of distinguished professionals appointed from all regions of Canada tasked with ensuring the capital region is a “source of national pride and significance.”
In 2013, the department approved the Memorial to the Victims of Communism, which was then approved by the National Capital Commission, in spite of dissenting individuals on the commission’s design committee, who pointed to a longstanding NCC plan to build a new Federal Court building on the Wellington Street site. This brings us to today: the monument is in the final approval stages at the NCC.
Why is this memorial poor public commemoration?
Reason #1: Tarring with too large a brush
In today’s Canada, it has become entirely acceptable to construct a monument at the spatial heart of the country that intends to simplistically portray all adherents of one particular ideology as victimizers. For, the title of this memorial is a “Memorial to the Victims of Communism,” which implies that communism is a victimizing ideology. It then follows that people who believed in communism in any time and place must have been victimizers.
Readers might accuse me of interpreting the title of the memorial in too literal a fashion. But this interpretation is not ill founded given the actions and rhetoric of key proponents of the project. For example, when the NCC proposed changing the name of the memorial to “A Memorial to the Victims of Totalitarian Communism,” effectively qualifying that only anti-democratic Communists could be considered victimizing (a fair assertion), John Baird, then minister responsible for the NCC, intervened directly to ensure the name change was rejected. In other words, when given the chance to change the title to err on the side of not vilifying an entire ideology, and therefore all of its adherents ever as victimizers, a key promoter of the project passed on the opportunity. Additionally, the prime minister’s extreme anti-Communist rhetoric at a fundraising dinner held by Tribute to Liberty suggests that the memorial has been designed in the spirit of tarnishing communism per se, and by extension its adherents, rather than in a fair spirit of memorializing victims of particular regimes. His evocative remarks, harkening back to the Cold War ideology of the domino theory, were the following: “during the 20th century, communism’s poisonous ideology and ruthless practice slowly bled into countries all around the world, on almost every continent.”
A memorial that tarnishes everyone ever who believed in communism with the brush of victimizer is insulting to Canadians. In history, there are such things as inherently pernicious ideologies, fascism or racism being good examples. However, communism is not among these—only a McCarthyist would argue otherwise. Communism, in broad strokes, arose as a political reaction to an excess of economic inequality created by the Industrial Revolution in 19th century Europe. In terms of ideology, its goal was to ensure human social freedom flourished in an age of an equal flourishing of material and technical advancement. It was a revolutionary ideology, but in strict ideological terms, that revolution was not born of an intention to oppress, but rather intended for broad-based human liberation.
Intentions are of course only one half of the equation in history—the other being consequences. There is absolutely no doubt that in the 20th century, many self-described Communists carried out crimes in the name of “Communist liberation,” from Stalin’s purges to the notorious East German Stasi’s surveillance of dissidents. In the same era however, many capitalists committed crimes explicitly in the name of capitalism such as the American government’s invasion of Vietnam and its carpet-bombing of Cambodia. However, like communism, nothing inherent to capitalism, for example, in its key texts such as Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations or a modern text important to neoliberals, Friedrich von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, advocate anything like the carpet-bombing of innocent civilians or meddling in the domestic politics of post-colonial states. The same is true of communism as an ideology—The Communist Manifesto or Das Kapital do not contain a blueprint for constructing a system of labour camps in Siberia.
Rather, as is always the case in human history, in the 20th century oppressive and victimizing individuals justified their actions through an invocation of their perverted interpretation of an ideology. The end justified the means—whether that end was capitalism or communism didn’t make one bit of difference to the actual victims.
Understanding that history contains plenty of examples of criminals that justify their behaviour through a wrongheaded interpretation of ideology rather than looking at the past through the simplistic lens of this memorial, which holds that communists committed heinous acts simply because they were Communist, is a feature of an educated liberal-democratic citizenry. If instead, the latter simplistic understanding of the past becomes widespread, history then becomes an absurd accusatory space in which everyone ever can be construed as a victimizer.
This can be demonstrated logically: many capitalists, Catholics, Americans, Chinese, etc. have perpetrated large-scale crimes. It would however be an oversimplification (and a seemingly obviously partisan one at that) to say that any of these ideologies, religions, or nationalisms is inherently victimizing of others. If this were the case, then each of these ideologies would need its own memorial, since all of these have had large-scale crimes committed in their names. It would then become reasonable to build a monument to the victims of capitalism across the street from the monument to the victims of communism. Down the block, a monument to the victims of Catholicism would be acceptable. Perhaps in Toronto we could build a memorial to the victims of straight people (since the Toronto police, whose members happened to be straight, once persecuted LGBTQ people).
Canadians should not tolerate such an illogical and obviously partisan stance by some of their elected leadership in conjunction with a charity when it comes to making critical decisions about how we remember the past, and therefore, the future direction of our society.
Reason #2: Keeping alive the innocence complex
Compounded with the too broad message of the monument is the fact that the memorial, as it is planned, further contributes to the longstanding Canadian innocence complex vis-à-vis our own history of nation building. Located at the spatial and metaphorical heart of the nation, between its highest court and its archival repository, will now exist a monument dedicated to crimes committed by people from other countries in far off places.
No one could reasonably argue that the crimes people committed in the name of communism that touched Canadian lives and families do not deserve their fair share of commemoration in appropriate forums in Canada and elsewhere. Yet, to place their commemoration in such a symbolically important and central location suggests a naiveté (wilful or not) about Canada’s history of nation building, especially in relation to aboriginal peoples. If, for some reason, we think that a memorial centering victimhood is the best choice for a key national monument (a debateable point in itself), would it not be logical to create a memorial to the victims of our own government’s policies? Indigenous people impacted by residential schools or Japanese Canadians who were forcibly relocated and had their property seized might be good candidates.
Ultimately, a nation with a healthy self-esteem talks about its own "shortcomings," if you will, rather than highlighting in its centrally symbolic spaces others’ crimes as evidence of its own moral superiority. The placing of this monument in such a critically symbolic space perpetuates a tradition of uncritical Canadian nationalism that basks in a continually harmful innocence complex with respect to its historical casualties of nation building.
Reason #3: A cruel erasure of Canadian history
“Socialism, Communism, dictatorship…we know that throughout Canada this propaganda is being put forward by organizations from foreign lands that seek to destroy our institutions. And we ask that every man and woman put the iron heel of ruthlessness against a thing of that kind.” – R.B. Bennett, prime minister of Canada, speech in Toronto, 1932
A recurring pattern in Canadian history is the political repression of voices on the left of the political spectrum in spite of the country’s traditions of liberal democracy. Some of the more well-known historical incidents associated with this repression are the putting down of the Winnipeg general strike in 1919, the RCMP’s halting of the On-to-Ottawa trek in Regina in 1935, police campaigns against Communist organizations in Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, and Vancouver in the 1920s and 1930s and the 1937 Padlock Law of the Union Nationale government of Maurice Duplessis.
Individual life stories put a human face on the consequences of paranoid anti-communism. One such instance was Samuel Levine, a physicist from England who worked in Toronto during the Second World War. Levine and his wife rented a room to a man accused of possessing “Communist literature.” When this man was tried, he insisted that Levine was ignorant of his political beliefs. Nonetheless, Levine was sentenced to six months in jail—in other words, he was guilty by association. After he was released, the RCMP decided to intern him without trial along with many other accused or suspected Communists in the period. Released in 1941, he was unable to obtain employment.
A pattern in Canadian history is a persistent hostility to people who believed in communism, who were sometimes interned, slandered, or deported for their political beliefs. Also true is that a constant background degree of paranoia about communism has led to wholly apolitical individuals being labelled with the epithet “Communist.” As a result, lives and careers, such as that of Samuel Levine, have been severely impacted if not ruined. Further, labels such as “queer”, “enemy alien”, and “foreign” have historically intersected with accusations of communism in Canada to form a nexus of mud-slinging terms, which when distilled, boiled down to essentially accusations of disloyalty to the country. Disloyalty then became the justification for the abrogation of Canada’s better half—its liberal traditions.
Much of this history is hard to come by because it is not taught extensively in our schools. And, if these incidents do receive mention, they are often framed as "anomalies" rather than recurring patterns—an unjustifiable pedagogy that ensures recurrence. It is a hard pill to swallow for many Canadians—to think that their country has a tradition of political repression along with one of political liberalism. But like most pills, once swallowed, the healing can begin. That healing would involve the growth of a citizenry that cultivates a critical though constructive scepticism of its elected officials and a more complex relationship to the idea and symbols of the nation—healthy features of a liberal-democracy.
But it appears that pill will not be swallowed anytime soon. The Memorial to the Victims of Communism is the latest chapter in the Canadian tradition of anti-Communist politics. Instead of ensuring the essential distinction between individual criminal acts justified through misinterpretations of ideology vs. inherently ruthless ideologies in history like racism or fascism is upheld, the memorial just learns us that communism is an inherently victimizing ideology. Instead of promoting a clear-eyed look at the complex and contradictory nature of Canadian history, which contains heroic instances where people fought for others’ political freedoms when they came under attack and instances where liberal freedoms were completely abandoned due to anti-Communist paranoia and fear, we are now told that all communists everywhere are victimizers. No thinking necessary! This latter point is a cruel act of doublespeak, transforming Canadian victims of anti-Communist state repression into always victimizers.
As is the pattern of many federal Conservatives, in, for example, their disrespectful attack ads that prey on the officially discredited ideologies of the majority and their disregard for parliamentary process, there is a great deal of contempt for the Canadian people built into this memorial. The contempt manifests in the way in which this memorial tells us what to think about history rather than promoting an open-minded exploration of our past, founded on a sincere belief in the idea of democratic citizenship.
The guardians of Canada’s liberal traditions (or the silent majority of fair-minded, liberal-spirited, and sincere Canadians from all points on the political spectrum) should oppose this memorial as an act of ensuring that our better half (the liberal-democratic tradition) prevails over the worse half of our political life—the tradition of Canadian illiberalism.
Jul 21, 2015 at 2:13pm
Will we be seeing an even bigger memorial to the victims of global capitalism soon?
Jul 21, 2015 at 4:06pm
This Conservative monument is a particularly odd waste of space, as Canada has never had a Communist government. Why not build a less brutal looking memorial - on a more human scale- to a broader assortment of victims? Berlin's memorial to the victims of war and tyranny is a good example.
Jul 21, 2015 at 4:30pm
Canada never had a Nazi government either. And yet, in spite of that, the Government of Canada has pledged to build a National Holocaust Monument.
And I doubt very much that the likes of Eric Wright will be submitting articles about why it’s a poor idea.
Barry William Teske
Jul 21, 2015 at 4:50pm
Your hard working tax dollars making a difference..
Promoting confrontational politics.
Something our politicians can take to the bank.
Jul 21, 2015 at 5:13pm
The entire Ottawa area is implicitly a memorial to the victims of Imperialism.
Jul 21, 2015 at 7:22pm
What a colossal waste of money and prime public property this ideologically driven crock of shit is. But we can't ever expect anything intelligent from harper and his gaggle of neocon pissants.
Ottawa is like a syphilitic scab oozing its puss all over the citizenry.
I'd rather shovel shit in a barn than waste my time and money to go anywhere near that abomination.
Jul 21, 2015 at 10:15pm
Looks like it will make a great medium for graffiti - plenty of flat surfaces. Hey, the remnants of the Berlin Wall, also a memorial of sorts to the victims of communism, with lots of flat surfaces, has lots of graffiti on it too.
Jul 24, 2015 at 11:39am
Odd that no one has noticed the way this fits into Conservative electioneering. Let me think, who's more likely to vote for the Cons because of this proposal? . . .