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'Mother Canada' is the dystopian war monument we deserve

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Image: facebook/Never Forgotten National Memorial

In John Dos Passos's 1932 anti-war novel Nineteen Nineteen, the working-class sailor Joe Williams says of the Great War, "This whole goddamned war's a gold brick, it ain't on the level, it's crooked from A to Z. No matter how it comes out, feller's like us get the s----y end of the stick, see?" After he deserts from the Navy and dies in a pointless barfight on Armistice Day, his sister wears a gold star on her lapel and tells her friends he died in battle. The distance between our memorials and the objects they memorialize has always been vast -- and when it comes to war, they've been downright fraudulent.

In a move inspired by the populist Roman Emperor and amateur musician Nero, Stephen Harper has decided it's a good idea to build a 30-metre Colossus memorializing Canada's military history along the rugged, windswept coastline of Cape Breton. The statue will be part of a proposed "Never Forgotten National Memorial" inside the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

The design proofs are awe-inspiring -- but not for the reasons the chest-thumping Conservatives think. Redolent of Fritz Lang's dystopian, impressionistic film Metropolis, the imposing "Mother Canada" seems less like a northern Cristo Redentor and more like the stony incarnation of patriotic egos that see no problem in calling assault helicopters for a ride to dinner. Did I mention Peter Mackay is a big supporter?

But while the announcement had many wondering if April Fools' Day had come early this year, the real comedy resides in the rest of the plans for the memorial, brilliantly conceived by food-packaging baron and "enthusiastic patriot" Tony Trigiani. From the Globe article:

Mr. Trigiani is planning to place a "We See Thee Rise Observation Deck" in front of the Mother Canada statue, and behind it "The Commemorative Ring of True Patriot Love," a low wall featuring metal plaques naming the international cemeteries where Canadian soldiers are buried. He's also planning a "With Glowing Hearts National Sanctuary," as well as a restaurant, souvenir shop and interpretive centre.

It's ok. You'll need a rest after reading that. What can even be said about the kind of mind that sees nothing off-kilter with that sort of vision? Its crassness, its cringing literalness -- its baffling incomprehension. A Commemorative Ring of True Patriot Love? A souvenir shop and interpetive centre? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, over.

Trigiani has made it plain that for him, this is a deeply personal project -- as if that makes the whole project make sense. If a ten-storey statue of Canada personified as a weeping Virgin Mary came to him in a dream, he can see no reason why he shouldn't be allowed to transform Green Cove, the proposed site of this monstrosity and one of the National Park's (A National Park!) most picturesque spots, into a maudlin, boorish tourist trap through sheer force of will. "It spoke to me," he said on CBC last month. Well, then.

But leaving that aside for a moment, what is it that "Mother Canada" is supposed to memorialize, exactly? An affinity for apocalyptic landscapes? Our national hope that Charlton Heston's corpse will one day film a movie here? It's not like the current government is all that concerned with veterans, since it is closing Veterans' Affairs offices across the country.

It's not flesh-and-blood soldiers Harper is concerned with; it's the ones we imagine in our collective national memory. And of course, when it comes to managing memory, the stakes are much, much higher.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, the same war Dos Passos's Joe calls "a gold brick." Trigiani's patriotic wet dream is meant to face the "Canada Bereft" memorial in Vimy Ridge, the moment often heralded in Canada's war history as our young nation's coming-of-age moment. My grandfather fought at Vimy Ridge -- his brothers died there. Just like the Harper government's bizarre comemmoration of the War of 1812 -- a war marked by incompetence that accomplished exactly nothing -- you can bet that "Mother Canada" is meant to help buttress the imperialist myth that an entire generation of working-class young men and women were slaughtered in the service of peace, justice and True Patriot Love.

This week also marks the end of Canada's 12-year misadventure in Afghanistan, a war started to bring Osama Bin Laden, allegedly, to justice. Bin Laden was assassinated in his home -- in Pakistan, sadly -- some ten years later, with no Canadian military personnel to be found. Meanwhile, invested pundits and hawkish politicians scramble to find justification for Canada's prolonged occupation of Kandahar and Kabul while brash fundamentalist militias continue to sew unrest and long-term stability in the region remains a fantasy.

Perhaps we get the war memorials we deserve. Canada's military mythology has ballooned to such bombastic, jingoistic excess to the point that our national sport, our favourite American-owned coffee chain, and Parliament's national vision have all been enlisted in its service. We are a nation of warriors, we're told, and we've got to keep on warrior-ing. Nevermind that we used to think of ourselves as peacekeepers (a myth with its own colonial implications). Nevermind that we help arm some of the most oppressive regimes in the world. Nevermind that all this chauvinistic posturing does nothing to change the geopolitical fact that Canada is a sprat in a sea of sharks.

Perhaps a megalithic, dystopian statue of a despairing woman reaching mawkishly out to sea (and 300 parking spaces) is the only monument that can aptly contain our swelling, hypocritical Glowing Hearts.

Image: facebook/Never Forgotten National Memorial

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