A Memorial to the Victims of Communism in Ottawa : a Political History

25 Septembre 2015

In 2008, the charity Tribute to Liberty is created in Ottawa, aiming to build a memorial to the victims of communism. Seven years later, while the construction should start soon, the monument raises multiple controversies. Many people, for many reasons, express their opposition to this project. Kayla Carman, member of the movement Move The Memorial, wants to gather this opposition, and explain here why she considers it as a democratic stance.

Architecture of the future Memorial to the Victims of Communism in Ottawa. Credit Tribute to Liberty
Architecture of the future Memorial to the Victims of Communism in Ottawa. Credit Tribute to Liberty
In 2012 a land located between The Library and Archives Canada and The Supreme Court of Canada was allocated to Tribute to Liberty, in order to build the monument to the victims of communism. If the government is backing the charity, two major controversies are raised. The first one is to be found in the very idea of its localization, considered as too close from a building supposed to affirm the impartial justice. A second argument is made that the memorial demonize a political ideology. The opposition's coherence lies in their democratic incentives. Kayla Carman is member of the movement Move The Memorial, willing to foster a relocalization of the memorial before its construction. This initiative has been motivated by the lack of public consultation before the decision-making process started. Therefore, their expression takes place on the current favorite public expression ground : internet.

Le Journal International : When did you decide to start the petition « Move the Memorial » ?

We decided to start the petition in February of 2015, after members of our campaign, and many other members of the public, were told not to post on the Tribute to Liberty facebook page, or blocked altogether. Many members of the public had been posing questions to the charity regarding the details of the selection process and for clarification on claims that the group represented the interests of 8 million Canadians who were descendant from people who once lived in communist or former communist states. Our questions remain unanswered, and this lack of transparency and respect for public approval is what drove us to start a petition on change.org and to build a facebook page and twitter account to facilitate discussions where individual members of public can collectively respond to this project. These arenas provide a space for people with a dissenting opinion to express themselves and be heard by elite members of the public who will be listening now that there are over 3,500 people who have stood up with us by signing the petition to #movethememorial.

Who does lead « Move the Memorial », and what did personally motivate you to engage in it ?

We are a collective of students who have realized that the public does not agree with the proposed memorial’s location, and we choose not to sit back and watch public institutions, opinions, and long term plans for our city be ignored.

In your opinion, why did « Tribute to Liberty » start this project ?

Tribute to Liberty is private charitable organization which has dedicated itself to constructing a memorial to the victims of communism. They are interested in memorializing the horrific events which occurred to their friends and relatives who lived and tragically suffered and died in communist states.

How was the location chosen ?

In September of 2009, the NCC approved the general proposal for the commemoration, requesting that the title of the memorial honour victims of ‘Totalitarian Communism’ in an effort the recognized those who have suffered under oppressive regimes in general. All parties consented to officially change the name of the commemoration to a “Monument to the Victims of Totalitarian Communism: Canada, a Land of Refuge.” This decision was endorsed publicly by the Conservative Government in 2010, and in the Speech from the Throne, the government committed to financially supporting the construction of the memorial. After two years of consultation, and a yearlong NCC evaluation, the Garden of the Provinces and Territories at Wellington and Bay streets was designated for the construction of the future memorial. In May of 2010, Public Works changed the location of the memorial to a 5,000 square metre plot of land between the Supreme Court of Canada, and Library Archives Canada—a site which had been reserved for a Federal Court Building since the early 1990s.

Your petition is to move the memorial. Does anyone engaged in your project want more than just to relocate it ?

There are a multitude of reasons to oppose the memorial to the victims of communism. Some have suggested that the memorial is an inappropriate use of public funds, some find that placing a memorial which demonizes (rightly or wrongly) a particular economic system rather than all those who have suffered under tyranny, totalitarianism, or at the hands of the Canadian government under colonialism is inappropriate. Some disagree with the design or the use of the scarce space on wellington for anything other than a building, while others suggest that the construction of the memorial is a strategic attempt for the Conservative government to garner support during an election year. Our campaign recognizes that these opinions share a common goal: to relocate the memorial, or cancel the project entirely until there has been representative consultation. The whole process has been shrouded in secrecy, the NCC which is meant to represent our interests was ignored, so people are frustrated that they aren’t being informed or listened to.

Stephen Harper said that people need to remember. Do you think we need this memorial, even if it could associate a political ideology with peculiar political regimes ?

I believe that the communities of people who want this memorial have the right to memorialize the tragedies that have affected their friends and family members. Memorials facilitate public mourning, which is part of the grieving process for many people. I also believe that the approval process should be the same for all public memorials and monuments, and that the selection process for this memorial did not follow the best-practices which have been established by the NCC. Those institutions are made to represent the long term vision of our city, and public interests as a whole. Additionally, the space had been reserved for a new federal court, so the efforts that went into those plans have gone to waste.

Do you think the debate is well-balanced between the pros and the cons?

I think that the opposition is loud, but it is being ignored.

Do you think the Ottawa population – and Canadian people, know about this project ? Do you think they must be concerned ?

Memorial to the Victims of Communism in Washington. Credit Karen Bleier / AFP
Memorial to the Victims of Communism in Washington. Credit Karen Bleier / AFP
I think there are a lot of things to be thinking about right now. Life is busy, and it’s an election year. There are so many topics buzzing around, whether it be the release of the 2016 Budget, or bill C-51, it’s hard to find the time and energy to be involved with everything. We think that this memorial is something that we can grab onto and change. The opposition is too strong for the government to simply ignore what is being said. That act of ignorance for public opinion on this scale is an affront to the democratic system we pride ourselves on. It is ironic that a memorial which is meant to commemorate those who died under tyranny would impose itself so sanctimoniously and without regard for public approval.

History, Communism and Politics

Ottawa would not be the first city to have a memorial to communism's victims. Besides the monuments erected in post-soviet countries, George W. Bush has inaugurated in Washington the “Victims of Communism Memorial”, in 2007. However, while the American memorial cost a little over a million, the construction in Ottawa is deemed to end up at more than 5 millions. Historically, the United States have not been alone in their “communists hunting investigations”. Canada was also counting black lists of suspected communists, and between 1950 and 1983 the PROFUNC program authorized the illegal detention of suspects on the ground of emergency.

Some opposition members criticize the fact that the memorial denies the historical role of communist movements in Canada, besides of denying the heritage of the political repression. This was through many battles, as the 1937 strike, that Canadians won many of the rights they dispose of now. This simplified narrative might be part of a strategical history revision led by the government, in order to serve political goals. In 2012, when the government decided to change the name of the Canadian Museum of Civilization to the “Canadian Museum of History”, some journalists already argued on the risk of a political use of history.

The debate is indeed political, with the main supporters gathered by Stephen Harper and the conservative party, and the opposition, bringing together the Liberal Party, the NDP, the Green Party, the Communist Party, several lawyers and architects.

Canada, a land of refuge ?

According to Tribute to Liberty, apparently far from political considerations, the monument will increase Canadian awareness to the communist abuses and will ensure justice for the more than 100 millions of victims. The monument will honor the role of Canada as a shelter for thousands of refugees fleeing the oppression. Despite this obviously laudable intention, political and ideological implications should not be underestimated, and justify the fight of some persons, who consider at least that these discussions should not occur on the justice doorsteps, and neither should mingle with current politics. Kayla Carman and her movement are tenacious, and she announces that they plan on “collecting signatures until the memorial is relocated”. Move the Memorial also plans demonstrations these spring and summer, and to amplify their national press echo.