FOREIGN PASTS 2018-02-05T16:31:17+00:00

Representing Foreign Pasts in Canada

Curator: Dr. Analays Alvarez Hernandez


“Commemorative activity is highly political and involves a power struggle
over who and what is to be remembered or forgotten.”[i]

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor posits in his major essay “The Politics of Recognition”[ii] that every culture and individual within a multicultural society can achieve public recognition. This claim of representational fullness seems nonetheless a never-ending endeavor in a country that embraces more than two hundred nationalities.

Representing ‘Foreign’ Pasts in Canada examines why and how ethno-cultural monuments that communicate extra-national narratives might be perceived as (potentially) challenging or threatening the cohesion of Canadian society. This site’s inaugural exhibition features existing ethno-cultural monuments and ongoing projects mainly from Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver – and also proposals that never materialized – that before, during, and after their construction have generated public debates over the representation of contested or controversial ‘foreign’ pasts.

Some Canadian ethno-cultural monuments that already exist, as well as proposals and requests for future monuments, are involved in complicated issues of political and memorial legitimation. In publicly channeling a vision of the world or a historical interpretation, most of ethno-cultural monuments seek to legitimize what is represented. In that sense, the display of contested extra-national narratives might become a source of public conflict, disharmony, or dissension in a constantly shifting Canadian context, as immigrants continue to come from far-flung corners of the world. This might explain why some Canadian municipalities seem to grant a great deal of importance to the “Canadianness” of themes and subjects represented though commemorative public art and to the financial responsibility attached to donors/commissioners.

In Toronto, recent policy changes reveal the City’s concern to limit the number of monuments and memorials recalling extra-national figures and events.[iii] Given the increase in the number of demands for these – five in 2016, and none of them politically neutral –, the City decided to develop a new public art donation policy.[iv] The 2017 policy document states that

“For commemorative donations, the theme of the proposed work must feature a significant contribution from Canadians, or be an event that occurred in Canada. If the event the donor wishes to commemorate neither occurred in Canada nor prominently features Canadians, then the event being commemorated must be officially recognized by the Government of Canada.”[v]

According to the city’s officers, this policy seeks to ensure that subjects of commemoration have relevance to a larger population.[vi]

The City of Vancouver seems to share Toronto’s concerns over commemorative public art donations. The Vancouver Park Board approved in 1997 the document Review Guidelines of Proposed Donations of Public Art and/or Memorials. This document states that “no civic funds will be provided for production, siting or installation”[vii] expenses related with any donation. Moreover, donation proposals will be evaluated for their “relevance to Vancouver, British Columbia and/or Canada.”[viii] In spite of this policy’s restrictiveness, memorial proposals continue to be submitted to the municipality. Vancouver’s senior cultural planner Karen Henry explains that for several years her team has advocated for a clearer donation process as a credible way to make decisions, given the limited public space in Vancouver’s downtown.[ix] Furthermore, Vancouver’s Public Art Committee recently recommended developing an exclusive policy and process to consider public art gifts to the City with a memorial purpose.[x]

The question of the themes and subjects to be commemorated also appears to be a central concern for Vancouver’s municipal administration. A public art study commissioned by the City in 2008 recommended that its Public Art Committee evaluate proposed commemorative and memorial artworks in relation to the impact of the represented figures and events on the history and values of Vancouver:

“In the case of ethnic contributions, for example, the individual or group must be seen to have had an impact on the city’s history, which goes beyond the impact he or she may have had on his or her particular community. […] A person, group, organization, idea, principle or event to be considered for commemoration in public space must have cultural significance for the city […]. In addition, ideas, principles and concepts will be commemorated only if they are accepted as exemplary and a positive influence on the life of Vancouver residents.”[xi]

These Vancouver-centered recommendations seem to overlook the fact that commemorative public art has historically served in the Western world as a medium through which to express a groups’ identity.

The nationalistic emphasis in Toronto and Vancouver’s current and expected public art donation guidelines reveals a strong desire to achieve and maintain social cohesion. But should monuments and memorials erected on Canadian soil exclusively commemorate events and figures related to Canada? For some ethno-cultural groups, narratives attached to their homeland – sometimes contested and unsanctioned narratives – constitute pillars of their collective identity and help to unify members living in diasporic contexts. I am thinking of the role that the Armenian Genocide (1915) played and still plays in the construction of the identity of Armenians and their descendants across the world.

An alternative model for managing ethno-cultural monument proposals has been put to test in Montreal since the mid-1990s. Although Montreal has like Toronto and Vancouver been confronted with an increase of this type of proposal, the city seems to have embraced a different approach. Before the adoption of the 2012 public art donation policy, which does not make a distinction between memorials and public artworks having no memorial purpose, the Ville de Montréal did not generally accept public art donations, except for works presented as official gifts from foreign countries. To deal with the increase in donation proposals stemming from local communities, the Bureau d’art public (BAP), the division that administers this municipality’s public art collection, commissioned commemorative works in collaboration with the Lebanese, Chilean, and Armenian communities of Montreal (see Daleth, L’Arc, and La Réparation). In spite of a fair attempt to bring the language of contemporary art closer to local communities, this new collaborative model might have generated some exclusion and encouraged historical generalizations. First, significant funds were provided by the groups involved in those commissions. This might have operated as an exclusion mechanism for communities with fewer financial resources. Second, the commissioned works do not actually display figurative motifs in spite of the fact that the groups making the proposals, like most ethno-cultural groups who propose monuments, wanted traditional busts or figurative sculptures of some sort.[xii] Third, the goals of the communities involved in these projects were expanded to accommodate other communities’ narratives (see the discussion of La Réparation in Section I, Historical Antagonisms).[xiii]

In conclusion, the new, current, and future guidelines for public art donations in these three cities seem to focus on limiting controversy. On the one hand, the mandatory financing of production, installation, maintenance, etc. by donors may be seen as a way to discourage them from pursuing their commemorative goals, or as an opportunity for municipalities to acquire new public artworks without using civic funds, which could definitely help them to avoid controversy when donated artworks encounter a negative public reception. On the other hand, the inclination of Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal’s municipal governments to regulate, even to limit the public representation of traumatic, contested, and/or controversial events seems a direct effort to avoid lines of controversy often associated with such monuments. Three of these lines of controversy are discussed in the following sections: Historical AntagonismsState of Denial; and Competing Heritages.

[i] Annie Gérin, “Introduction: Off Base,” in Public Art in Canada: Critical Perspectives, ed. Annie Gérin and James S. McLean (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 12.

[ii] Charles Taylor, “The Politics of Recognition,” in Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, Amy Gutmann (ed.) (Princeton University Press, 1994), 25-73.

[iii] City of Toronto, “Report for Action: Public Art and Monuments Donation Policy,” 21 Dec. 2016.

[iv] Sally Han [Manager, Cultural Partnerships, Economic Development & Culture, City of Toronto], phone interview by the author, 8 Dec. 2016.

[v] City of Toronto, “Report for Action”, 4.

[vi] Sally Han, interview by author.

[vii] City of Vancouver, Vancouver Parks, “Review Guidelines for the Donation of Public Art or Memorials.”

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Karen Henrys[hyperlink]alizedean, and Armenian communities of Montrealide (1915) in the construction of Armenian’th using public funds. If  [Senior Cultural Planner, City of Vancouver], e-mail communication with the author, 17 Oct. 2016.

[x]  City of Vancouver, Public Art Committee, Minutes, 29 Feb. 2016.

[xi] “Vancouver Public Art Program. Program Review and Design Framework for Public Art.” 17 April 2008. 67-68.

[xii] On this matter, see Analays Alvarez Hernandez, “Art public et diversité ethnoculturelle à Montréal: (en)quête d’un modèle de représentation inclusif,” TicArtToc 5 (October 2015): 32-5.

[xiii] Ibid.