About Ethno-Cultural Monuments (ECM) in Canada
Urban design scholar Quentin Stevens has pointed out that in today’s democratic cities, “public memorials are rarely initiated or designed by the executive branch of the national government, but rather by diverse groups with differing interests.”[i] This seems to be especially the case in multicultural and diasporic nations such as Canada. In this country, multiple actors want to and can fund commemorative public art, ranging from first settlers’ and First Nation’s groups to ethno-cultural communities.
In spite of the importance and possible repercussions of ethno-cultural communities’ growing interest in Canada’s politics of commemoration, the relation between public art and immigrant populations is a field that remains critically unexplored. In light of this fact, I decided to conduct a study of permanent works of public art, whether publicly or privately owned or funded, that have been erected across the cities of Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal to evince local and extra-national narratives connected with ethno-cultural groups. For two years (2016/2017), I held a postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of History of Art at the University of Toronto, under the supervision of Dr. Mark A. Cheetham. The main objective of my postdoctoral research was the creation of this website, which includes an online registry featuring over eighty ‘ethno-cultural monuments’ erected in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal. It also presents an exhibition that gathers case studies that encourage reflection on the multiple challenges of displaying extra-national narratives through public art in Canada. In undertaking this research, I adopted a qualitative and ethnographic approach, relying on field research and on the analysis of newspaper articles (especially from community and regional papers), online resources, and such primary sources as reports of municipal councils and meeting minutes, public art guidelines and policies, and municipal and provincial archival documents.
I have coined the term ethno-cultural monuments to describe often aesthetically conservative monuments and memorials that are generally the fruit of communal efforts led by diasporic groups and occasionally supported by distinct levels of the Canadian government. They correspond to the longstanding definition of a monument: a publicly placed work of art with a deliberate commemorative value. Ethno-cultural monuments are typically at sites that can physically accommodate commemorative activity, such as gatherings and wreath laying ceremonies, and they generally bear an inscription or plaque encapsulating the commemorated subject, which is essential to the fixing of their meaning. Even if they are often barely noticeable in urban landscapes, ethno-cultural monuments do contribute to the ‘production of locality.’[ii] They are forms of intentional place and identity building that can be understood simultaneously as assertions of power over particular areas and as social agents fostering a sense of belonging or neighborhood.
Although ethno-cultural monuments have inhabited Canadian cityscapes since the early twentieth century, my research indicates that there has been a growing demand by immigrant groups for commemorative works of public art over the last forty years.
This can be explained by the conjunction of four main factors:
- First, to promote equality, the Canadian federal government adopted in 1971 a multiculturalism policy that grants non-dominant ethno-cultural groups public recognition and the accommodation of cultural and religious differences.
- Second, the growth of a demand for ethno-cultural public art is closely related to changes in migration patterns, which are no longer single and unidirectional movements from one place to another. Migrants travel back and forth between places, and this keeps alive connections to the place of origin.[iii]
- Third, after World War II, immigrants and refugees started coming to Canada in large numbers (many to Toronto), not only from Europe, but also from many other parts of the world. This trend has gained momentum since the early 1980s. The number of immigrants from Asia, Africa, and South and Central America has had a deep impact on Canada’s population.[iv]
- Fourth, the wish of ethno-cultural groups to produce official public monuments is an aspect of the contemporary culture of public commemoration, particularly visible in Western societies.[v] In the memorialization process, victims of slavery, terrorism, genocide, and totalitarian regimes come to the fore, often alongside petitions for reparation.
All this triggers an imperative to reflect upon the following questions: What and who is worthy of commemoration, and how does a multicultural society effectively remember (and forget)?
As funding opportunities emerge, this website will host new exhibitions and an expanded registry – including ethno-cultural monuments from other Canadian cities – in a continuing effort to understand the politics of commemoration in an ever-shifting Canadian society.
Analays Alvarez Hernandez, Ph.D.
Art Historian and Principal Investigator
Research project ECM in Canada (2016/2017)
[i] Quentin STEVENS, “Masterplanning public memorials: An Historical Comparison of Washington, Ottawa and Canberra,” Planning Perspectives 30.1 (2015): 39.
[ii] On this concept, see Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis and London: Univerity of Minnesota Press, 1996).
[iii] Caitlin Gordon-Walker, “Mapping National Identity,” in Cultural Challenges of Migration in Canada. Ed. Klaus-Dieter Ertler and Patrick Imbert (Frankfurt: Peter Lang Edition, 2014), 209-222.
[iv] Shibao Guo, and Lloyd Wong (ed.), Revisiting Multiculturalism in Canada: Theories, Policies and Debates (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2015).
[v] On the memory culture, see Andreas Huyssen, Twilight Memories : Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia (New York: Routledge, 1995); Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003); David Simpson, 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2006); Erika Doss, Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2010); Andrew Hoskins, “Media and the closure of the memory boom,” in Media and Nostalgia: Yearning for the Past, Present and Future, ed. Katherina Niemeyer (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).