Memory, Politics and the Monument to Victims of Communism

Monuments are our memories rendered in stone. Those memories are a contested amalgam of memory, history, identity, politics and the power to publicly replicate that vision. This is made powerfully evident by the discussions related to the establishment of a Monument to the Victims of Communism to be established in the Judicial Precinct of our National Capital. Its location, in front of the Supreme Court of Canada building, will convey the message that the most important element of our national and legal history is one that is not about Canadian state action, did not take place on Canadian soil and holds to account multiple states other than ourselves.

To be sure, the cry for recognition and acknowledgement by Canadians who have suffered under Communism is consistent with our sense of our nation as a country of immigrants. All political parties supported the creation of the monument. It is the form, location, process and degree of public financing for the memorialization that is at issue.

Over 4,800 architects have raised their voices in opposition to the present location. The Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) has called upon the Harper government to relocate the memorial by 300 metres to the Garden of the Provinces and Territories. This is being strenuously opposed by the Harper government and the private group that initiated the process, Tribute to Liberty. In urging this move, the RAIC reminded the Prime Minister that a national site in the Judicial Precinct must stand above crass politicking. They stated that the monument should speak to all Canadians. The Canadian Society of Landscape Architects recommended that the monument be designed and constructed so it could be moved to another site if required.

The plans for a new Federal Court building in that location have been in existence since 1920. The official design and unveiling for the new Federal Court Building took place in 2003. At that time it was proposed that the building be named after former Liberal Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. A building honouring the person who repatriated our Constitution and brought in the Charter of Rights for all Canadians is fitting. However, it appears that the Harper government would prefer to deny both the name and the building. After all, moving the monument 300 metres is still a very honoured position within the National Capital. However, it would still leave the possibility of a Federal Court Building, as originally proposed over the decades, commemorating a political rival.

Erecting a monument to communism in the Judicial Precinct is also problematic from the perspective of Canadian legal history. The monument would obscure the actions of the Canadian government in using “communism” as the proxy to discriminate against its own citizens. The full force of the law was used to deport, imprison and monitor persons who were deemed influenced by communism in the 1930s to 50s. It was a stratagem to break labour unions. We were adversely influenced by the rabid anti-communism of the McCarthy era in the US and took time to recover. These are shameful moments in our history which would be provided with a concrete shield as the monument would hold other nations to account.

There is no doubt that millions of people across the globe suffered and continue to suffer at the hands of those who profess Communist ideology. However, the Harper government and its supporters wish to play a numbers game by citing the 100 million who have lost their lives to communist regimes over human history. It is a lose/lose proposition. For it is also true that millions suffered and continue to suffer from the capitalist predations of colonialism made manifest in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. We ought to then consider the impact of the Arab/Muslim slave trade and its devastating impact particularly on peoples of sub-Saharan Africa. We could equally erect a monument to religious freedom worldwide, since those victims would be more reflective of global diversity. If themes were to be advanced in a public consultation, I would advance a monument marking the struggles of Aboriginal peoples with the Canadian state as more politically and geographically proximate.

Canadians, including the Algonquin Nation upon whose unceded territory our Parliament and Judicial buildings rest, are entitled to a monument or use that is fully inclusive of our history and identity. In the alternative, our Judicial Precinct should be neutral and focused on ensuring that our Federal Court is properly housed rather than scattered in various buildings. Should the Monument to the Victims of Communism remain in its present location, it will bear the psychic fingerprints of a government which played to the politics of the moment rather than embracing its obligations under the Rule of Law to serve as a guardian for our communally held beliefs. That obligation includes ensuring that our memories made stone are not spectacles for political partisanship. Any monument in the precious public space adjacent to the Supreme Court of Canada and Federal Court must inspire and speak to each of us about our greatest possibility as Canadians. Memorializing the history of a few at the expense of the majority diminishes us all.


  1. William Denis Guest

    Perhaps a monument to the victims of Colonialism and Canadianism in North America would be more honest.