Bringing Our National History to Life on Parliament Hill

Commemoration on Parliament Hill

Canada’s Parliament buildings were constructed on Old Barrack Hill now commonly known as Parliament Hill. Construction began in 1859 and was finally completed in 1876, grossly over-budget and surviving countless delays. When new provinces joined the federation in 1905, expansion of the building began once more. in February of 1916, fire broke out and destroyed all but the Library of Parliament as its gigantic iron doors had been shuttered in time to save the room and its priceless contents. Parliamentarians, sitting in the House that evening, escaped after hearing of the fire and Prime Minister Borden crawled through the hallways to safety. By 1920 the Centre-Block was rebuilt and by 1927 the Peace Tower was complete. In 1952 the Library caught fire though was not destroyed and repairs quickly began. Maintenance has continued on all buildings since.

Surrounding the buildings today on the grounds of Parliament Hill are several statues and monuments commemorating the contributions of some of Canada’s greatest citizens. Seven Prime Ministers are honoured with their own statues: Macdonald, Mackenzie, Laurier, Borden, King, Diefenbaker, and Pearson. Two Queens, Victoria and Elizabeth II, are honoured. Two fathers of Responsible Government are honoured: LaFontaine and Baldwin. Two slain Fathers of Confederation, McGee and Brown, also have statues. They are joined by another Father of Confederation, Cartier. And one other monument, dedicated to the Famous Five which it represents: Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Emily Murphy, Louise McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards.

Cartier’s statue was the first to be installed and was done so at the personal direction of his long time friend, Prime Minister Macdonald. Affected deeply by his death in 1873, Macdonald ordered a state funeral and a statue for the Hill. Alexander Mackenzie’s statue was installed in 1901 after being on display in Paris, as was Queen Victoria’s. Brown’s was erected in 1913 and Baldwin and LaFontaine’s joint monument in 1914. Wilfrid Laurier’s monument was decided on in 1922 and his successor Borden’s in 1957, the largest gap in installations to that point.

In 1967, the Centennial year, four statues were to be commissioned to celebrate 100 years of Canada. They were to be of Arthur Meighen, WLM King, Richard Bennett and Louis St. Laurent. All but Bennett’s were constructed, the design for his being rejected. However, in the more stylized 1960s, all but King’s statue were seen as unfit for the Hill. King’s statue was erected, Meighen’s sent to the town he was buried in, and St. Laurent’s left in storage.

It would be another 18 years before a new statue was brought to the Hill. In 1985, a statue of Diefenbaker was raised and four years later joined by a statue of a seated Lester Pearson. 11 years later, a monument to the Famous Five, the women involved in the Persons Case, was installed on Parliament Hill.

R.B. Bennett and the Calls for a New Statue

There has been no Prime Minister purposely ignored more than Richard Bennett. Leading during the Great Depression, he is not simply forgotten like some Prime Ministers before him, but openly derided for things that were largely beyond his control. The lone Prime Minister without a statue despite one being called for, his absence from the Hill is notable.

Former Liberal Prime Minister John Turner and Conservative Senator and historian Hugh Segal have both called for a statue to be commissioned of the millionaire Prime Minister. A teenager from Bennett’s home province of New Brunswick named Jordan Grondin is actively pushing for a statue of Bennett. He has apparently swayed the sitting Prime Minister on the issue which suggests his efforts will likely bear fruit.

I support Turner, Segal and Grondin is their calls but wish to make one of my own. Instead of calls for individual Prime Ministers to be honoured, why not bring history alive on the Hill by creating a fully supported historical walk with informative plaques and brochures to guide participants? Why not support the project with legislation to determine who receives a statue, when and what the guidelines are for its construction? Why not include the path beneath Parliament Hill as a way to commemorate the Premiers who ushered their provinces into Confederation whether it be in 1867 or 1999?

Commemoration Circuit

The grounds of Parliament Hill and surrounding areas beyond should boast statues of every Prime Minister Canada has ever had, not necessarily to celebrate their politics or personal legacies but Canadian history in general and the time in which they played a heavy role in shaping.

Calls for a statue of Bennett should be echoed by ones for Abbott, Thompson, Bowell (yes even Bowell) and Tupper. It should include the underrated Meighen and St. Laurent and continue with Trudeau, Clark, Turner, Mulroney, Campbell, Chretien, Martin and one day, Harper. Each Prime Minister has their official portrait hung in the halls of Parliament and should receive similar treatment on its grounds. Though, it should be noted, Meighen’s portrait was only recently hung despite his service as Prime Minister ending in 1926.

It might be hard to argue the merit of installing a statue to Bowell yet his time in office reflects the issues of his time and mark the only time a Prime Minister was forced to resign because his Cabinet would not support him. That history is worth knowing and sharing.

Trudeau likewise presided over historic times and Patriated the Constitution yet does not have a statue. Campbell was Canada’s first ever female Prime Minister and nearly 20 years after her time in office, still lacks a monument.

Canadians tend not to celebrate their history and at times seem quite adverse to monuments. But if we are to be aware of our mutual history, if we are to celebrate it, and if we are to share it with the world, there is no better place to commemorate our past than on Parliament Hill. But that commemoration should be selective or biased. We should tell our national story in its entirety and that begins with remembering those who have led us.

Path of the Premiers

At the foot of Parliament Hill there lies a walking trail next to the river. It is a nice place to get some exercise and fresh air or just a view of Hull across the water. However, because of its location at the foot of Parliament Hill I think the trial can do more for our national narrative and our awareness of our collective past.

Thirteen different Premiers either initiated their province or territory’s inclusion into the Federation or became the first representatives of that province or territory after that inclusion. I believe that this pathway should be used to share the history of Confederation, from 1867 until 1999. By understanding how our federation came to be, we can better understand how to navigate its sometimes complicated waters and work to make it stronger.

The combination of Commemoration Circuit and the Path of the Premiers would help bring Canadian history to Parliament Hill to the necessary degree that has not yet been carried out. Canadians need a stronger relationship with their history and our government can help.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *