A photo of a statute of Winston Churchill in Nova Scotia.
Sir Winston Churchill, this version in Nova Scotia, artfully sculpted and appropriately adorned by the pigeons of Halifax. Credit: David J. Climenhaga Credit: David J. Climenhaga

There was probably a time it made sense to erect statues of Winston Churchill in Canada.

Say, about 1946.

Britain’s prime minister through most of World War II certainly played a significant role in the victory over Nazi Germany and for that we must be grateful, even though we recognize that Churchill is a historical figure who deserves to be painted warts and all. 

Until recently at least we were also able to do this with other leaders in the great anti-Hitler coalition that defeated Germany and its allies in 1945, ending the threat to humanity of Hitlerism, if not of fascism, more broadly defined. 

For example, we are capable of recognizing that the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin played a significant role in the defeat of Hitler and the Third Reich, even if he did sign a non-aggression pact with the fellow once upon a time, but also that he was no democrat and a paranoid, murderous leader in his own right.

Considering what happened in Europe in the months after the defeat of the German army at Stalingrad in February 1943, I suppose, one could take issue with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s claim yesterday that “there is no single person more responsible for the defeat of fascism and the evils of the Nazi regime in the Second World War than Sir Winston Churchill.”

But just as there was a time when it made sense to erect statues of Churchill in Canada, there is a time when it makes sense not to – for example, in 2023. 

In his encomium to the wartime British leader yesterday, even Kenney admitted, albeit half-heartedly, that Churchill was “not perfect.” 

Indeed. Churchill’s legacy is, to say the least, controversial. He may have been, as Kenney insisted in his verbose announcement that a statue will be erected to Churchill next year in the centre of downtown Calgary, “the century’s single greatest leader.” 

Or he may have been, as others have argued, “a grotesque racist and a stubborn imperialist, forever on the wrong side of history.”

I suppose it’s possible to have even been both of those things at once. But, be that as it may, the zeitgeist of the first part of the 21st Century is certainly to acknowledge such profound flaws and not to whitewash them or glorify them with statuary. 

Kenney, though, is not one for turning from his obsessions, among which are a couple of leaders of what we nowadays call the Anglosphere whose accomplishments are acknowledged but whose deep flaws Alberta’s soon-to-depart leader desperately wants us to forget.

If Kenney thinks Churchill was the greatest leader of the 20th Century, and wants to erect a redundant and doubtless unpopular statue of the man in Calgary, he has also made it clear he attributes similar stature in the 19th Century to John A. Macdonald and is prepared to move an unwanted statue of Canada’s first prime minister and one of the architects of the residential school horror to Alberta from Victoria, B.C. 

Victoria, named for another colonial personage, has relegated Macdonald’s statue, in disgrace, to a warehouse somewhere. 

The city will be harder to rename, as Victoria has a different sort of modern currency. Still, as a native of that place, my vote would be to rename the city too. I would suggest Tillicum, which means “friend” in the pre-colonial lingua franca of the Pacific Northwest. But je digresse.

Kenney is not only obsessive about history – to the point of being a crank, it would be fair to say – he is determined to ram his obsessions up our noses, as is the case with his bizarre fixation with Alberta Education’s appallingly ideological social studies curriculum, and now his enthusiasm for this statue of Churchill in front of the former MacDougall School in Calgary’s downtown, which nowadays serves as the Alberta government’s alternate Southern Alberta premier’s office. 

About $300,000 for the statue by Edmonton sculptor Danek Mozdzenski has been raised by the Sir Winston Churchill Society of Calgary, an organization famed in the now mostly forgotten annals of the Calgary Herald for its annual “Winnie Dinnie,” an annual dinner featuring a speaker who actually knew the late PM.

In my formative years as a journalist, I was threatened with discipline for writing in a story advancing this black-tie affair that mentioned that the evening’s speaker, Sir Colin Coote, had been “badly gassed at Ypres in 1915.”

I stoutly denied the pun had been intended. (It was.) I was never accorded the honour of covering the dinner, my bad attitude no doubt compounded by a faintly Teutonic surname. 

The Winnie Dinnie’s sponsors in those days were all sincere admirers of Churchill and mostly Conservatives of a type no longer found in North America, that is to say, Tories

Now, I see from Kenney’s press release, that the president of the society is Mark Milke, a former apparatchik of the Fraser Institute and now chief honcho of a new neoliberal entity called the Aristotle Foundation, presumably dedicated to polishing the tarnished reputations of such figures as Winston Churchill. 

In the cheerful little video that accompanied the press release on the government’s website, Dr. Milke, also a former political advisor to Kenney and one-time functionary of the notorious Energy War Room, enthused of Churchill: “He loved Alberta.” 

The historical record of Churchill’s love for Alberta is thin enough for a Fraser Institute press release, a few press clippings about an oh-so-brief visit in 1929, a few weeks after the British election that brought Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government to power and marked the beginning of the “Wilderness Years” for Churchill, then a mere MP and one reduced to Opposition at that. 

That said, Churchill’s son Randolph, who accompanied him to North America, is said to have accused Alberta oilmen of “pigging up a beautiful valley to make their fortunes” when they visited Turner Valley, a remark that had it been made in 2019 doubtless would have incurred the wrath of Milke’s War Room. 

Regardless of the involvement of the modern incarnation of the Winnie Dinnie society, no good will come from erecting a statue of Churchill in Calgary. 

Indeed, one suspects that mischief is the goal. 

It will be a constant affront to many Albertans and a rallying point for others, many of whom hold repugnant views of the sort for which Churchill is nowadays widely condemned. 

Security costs will have to be borne by Calgary taxpayers. 

Every time someone dumps a can of red paint over Churchill’s head, or some neo-Nazi group rallies at his feet, we will be reminded of the unhappy days we were led by Kenney and Alberta policy was directed by his weird obsessions. 

Perhaps that is the outgoing premier’s intention. 

I am reminded of the story about the late American president Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was said to frequently give toothbrushes as gifts to White House visitors.

He chose toothbrushes, LBJ is said to have explained, “because I want people to think of me when they get up in the morning and when they go to bed at night.”

If Kenney wants us all to think of him every morning and every night, it would be less expensive in every way if he’d just offer us all a free toothbrush and a roll of floss!

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...