A Monument to the Past? The Never Forgotten National War Memorial Project

By Jill Campbell-Miller

The proposed statue. Never Forgotten National Memorial Foundation

The proposed statue. Never Forgotten National Memorial Foundation

Over this past winter and spring, the controversy around the proposed Never Forgotten National War Memorial Project has become increasingly intense, even reaching the pages of the Guardian. The project, sponsored by the Never Forgotten National Memorial Foundation, and specifically, Toronto businessman Tony Trigiani, intends to honour fallen soldiers who served abroad. Positioned overlooking the Atlantic Ocean at Green Cove in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park (CBHNP), the idea has drawn support from those who see the attraction as having potential economic benefits for the area. Local supporters even held a rally to show their enthusiasm. However, it has also caused a furor among others, who worry that the magnitude of the monument, which currently includes a 25-metre statue of “Mother Canada,” a parking lot, two interpretive centres, and other amenities, will have serious environmental and cultural consequences for the scenic area. Twenty-eight former Parks Canada managers wrote an open letter to Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq to oppose it.

I should start by saying that I am not neutral on this issue. I grew up in Cape North, a village situated in the middle of the CBHNP. As a kid, Green Cove was one of the many spectacular views that I passed on the way to dentist appointments and Christmas shopping trips. The Never Forgotten project has no appeal to me. As much as I appreciate the sentiment of those who wish to honour Canadian soldiers who died overseas – including my uncle, Donald Campbell, whose plane went missing during WWII – the oversized scale of the project strikes me as inappropriate both to particular area of Green Cove and the Park in general.

However, as a historian, I find the controversy fascinating, albeit in a somewhat depressing way. The issues it provokes encompasses many of those found in contemporary Canadian historiography, including the relationship between gender, memory and war, the historical conflict between the conservation movement and rural land owners and users, and the tensions inherent in the role of parks themselves, caught as they are between paradoxical roles of providing cultural attractions while also being stewards of the environment.

A view of Green Cove today. Kenny Louie/Wikipedia Commons

A view of Green Cove today. Kenny Louie/Wikipedia Commons

Following an era of public art that has chosen modernist and abstract pieces (in sharp contrast to the imposing Mother Canada statue is the relatively demure Swiss Air Flight 111 memorial in Peggy’s Cove), the Never Forgotten proposal may look more familiar to historians than to the public at large. As Jonathan Vance discusses in Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War, the “mother” figure as representative of both mourning for the dead and the honour of the Nation dates back at least to the Victorian and Edwardian eras. During the inter-war years, the idea of Canada as the son and soldier of “Mother Britain” became a prominent symbol for Canadians as they remembered and commemorated WWI.[1] As he writes, “She is the personification of traditional, even immutable, values, her strength and constancy lending a sense of continuity of events.”[2]

Yet while the “mother” figure has a long lineage in Canadian culture, and the grand size of the monument no doubt reflects a desire to parallel the popular and majestic Vimy Ridge memorial, it also reflects historical symbolism of another kind. As Emanuel Jannasch of the Dalhousie School of Architecture pointed out in a recent letter to the Chronicle Herald (republished on the Halifax Examiner blog with photos here), huge “mother” war monuments were built all over Soviet Eastern Europe as tributes to the soldiers who fought against the fascist Axis powers in WWII. The reason for this no doubt unintentional parallel lay in the widely-held use of the female figure as symbolic of virtue in the context of war throughout Europe and North America. The use of the female body – as the innocent, virginal girl “raped” by the enemy, or the stalwart, enduring mother, bravely mourning the loss of her son – are symbols from an era that worshipped a fictional and tightly proscribed femininity, while simultaneously oppressing real women.[3] While we may admire the beauty of monuments from this period, we should not necessarily replicate them in the twenty-first century.

Aside from the rather outdated aesthetic of the monument itself, the conflict over its location also hearkens back to the history of the Park’s establishment in the area. There is, of course, the ever-present issue of its presence on traditional Mi’kmaw territory. More visible, though, is the complex history of the relationship between the CBHNP and the local community. The CBHNP was created in 1936 as part of the effort to expand the National Parks system eastward, which itself was a part of the North American conservation movement dominant in the early twentieth century.[4] In his paper examining the Point Pelee and Georgian Bay Islands National Parks, John Sandlos has convincingly argued that revisionist environmental histories may overstate their case when they emphasize that “autocratic conservation bureaucracy trampled upon the interests of local people.”[5] However, as Alan MacEachern has shown in his book Natural Selections: National Parks in Atlantic Canada, 1935-1970, the process of creating the CBHNP was actually typical of these autocratic tendencies.

While MacEachern writes that local people did resist by ensuring they were paid fair, if not above, market-value prices for their properties, he also argues that the Parks Branch appropriated land with little to no consideration about the effect it would have on communities, and kept residents in the dark about the plans for the Park as long as possible: “Considering the new park was about to reshape land ownership and land use in Cape Breton’s northern peninsula, it is remarkable how little was known about it by those most directly affected.”[6] While some were happy to sell excess woodlots or to benefit from the employment that the Park brought to the area, others resented the heavy-handed way that their land was taken from them.[7]

Although the vestiges of pre-Park human settlement in the CBHNP have mostly faded, the connection between the communities in Northern Cape Breton and Park land has not. The borders between Crown land, private property, and Park land are perhaps legally clear, but culturally, the boundaries are vaguer. In an area with few fences between houses, and large sprawling properties with property lines deep in the woods, property boundaries are not as rigid as in the urban or agricultural context. A feeling of ownership over Park land remains, decades after the original appropriations. Few bother to purchase a summer pass to use park resources. And of course, the occasional moose goes “missing” only to be found in someone’s freezer weeks later.

The proposal for the Never Forgotten monument, then, exposes the tensions inherent in this historical relationship. While the Park may be legally within its right to put up the monument, the imposition of the design and choice of location seems to violate this sense of local ownership over Park land. Parks Canada will deny that there has been a lack of consultation. In March 2014, it attended a public meeting to reassure local residents that it would hold a transparent consultation process. This past May, it collected public feedback on a jargon-filled eighty-six page “Draft Detailed Impact Analysis.” However, given that so much had been determined prior to these consultations, there is, as Alan MacEachern writes of the original land appropriation , “a feeling of inevitability” about the monument.[8] And while the potential economic benefits appeal to many, Parks Canada’s decision to cut positions and the length of the working season for employees in 2012, and the recent privatization of the Park’s historic Highlands Links Golf Course, has also reduced job security in the area in recent years. Parks Canada’s enthusiasm for the monument does not square with its overall lack of investment in the CBHNP.

It is difficult to imagine rounding the corner on the Cabot Trail at Green Cove, as I have done so many times before, and coming into view of an eight-story statue. As a Canadian historian, I will see it in the context of a past that I had hoped we had evolved beyond.

Jill Campbell-Miller is neither a war historian nor an environmental historian, but has great respect for these fields. Her dissertation examined the history of Canadian foreign assistance to India during the 1950s and she received her doctorate from the University of Waterloo in the fall of 2014. She is currently an instructor at Saint Mary’s University and a researcher on the CIHR-funded project “Mapping Vaccine Hesitancy in Canada,” undertaken by the Canadian Immunization Research Network. Reach her at jill.campbell-miller@smu.ca or @jill_cm.


[1] Jonathan Vance, Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997), 146-150.

[2] Ibid, 150.

[3] Although not a Canadian example, Louise Ryan has written a fascinating article on the use of female symbols during the Anglo-Irish war: Louise Ryan, “‘Drunken Tans’: Representations of Sex and Violence in the Anglo-Irish War (1919-21),” Feminist Review 66, Political Currents (Autumn 2000): 73-94.

[4] For more on the early conservation movement and the creation of Canada’s National Parks, see Claire Campbell, ed., A Century of Parks Canada, 1911-2011 (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2011); Tina Loo, States of Nature: Conserving Canada’s Wildlife in the Twentieth Century (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2006).

[5] John Sandlos, “Federal Spaces, Local Conflicts: National Parks and the Exclusionary Politics of the Conservation Movement in Ontario, 1900-1935,” The Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 16, no. 1 (2005): 296.

[6] Alan MacEachern, Natural Selections: National Parks in Atlantic Canada, 1935-1970 (Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001), 57.

[7] Ibid, 56-63.

[8] Ibid, 61.

10 thoughts on “A Monument to the Past? The Never Forgotten National War Memorial Project

  1. It’s an appalling vanity project supported by a federal government that is essentially anti-history. As for economic benefits, I cannot imagine anyone other than the most ardent supporter of war myth and outdated statuary travelling to see the thing.

    The Cabot Trail, part of actual history, stands on its own as a destination, and as you say the resource cuts indicate the true interest the government has in promoting or preserving the area.

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful and well-sourced piece. I think it’s important to point out that Parks Canada has never interpreted the human history of Green Cove, which was a small village in the 1800s with a school, post office, cannery. The area, along with sites like Middle Head and Lowland Cove, served as important sites in the seasonal fishery.

    I’m appalled that after years of silence on the human history, Parks has the audacity to consider a fictitious history because a plastics salesman from Toronto indicates that it would have been one of the last pieces of land seen as the troops were sent to war.

    There was one water worn flake of andesite found at Green Cove during an archaeological survey decades ago, which is likely associated with the early Archaic period quarry that was used thousands of years ago on Ingonish Island. Parks Canada’s own reports state that it may have been a stopping place for people thousands of years ago.

    My great grandfather fought at Vimy and supported a national park to preserve the natural beauty of the area. He later had his land expropriated, not to maintain ecological integrity, but for a golf course! Now, about 80 years later it feels like history is repeating itself.

    We should definitely get together and chat about this. I’ve been involved with all of this from day one and need strong, intelligent people like you to help me stay true despite the backlash.

    Thanks again. Your dad would be proud.

  3. A pretty handy summation of an issue with broad concerns. I would, however, take issue with this notion:

    “caught between paradoxical roles of providing cultural attractions while also being stewards of the environment”… The Parks service is meant to provide access to cultural attractions that are native to a specific Park or Historic Site, not to create such things willy nilly, as they occur to someone’s imagination. Had this spot been the site of an old war grave, or an actual departure or arrival point for soldiers, say, then a monument concerning wars or soldiers would form a natural part of this land’s culture. Green Cove thankfully has no such history, and so siting a war memorial here is a disconnect. It is not culturally appropriate to this Park, and there is therefore no bind for the Parks service to be “caught” in.

  4. thank you or this scholarly and important analysis. the author has related these historical issues extremely well and is entirely convincing on the wrong-headedness of the proposed ego extravaganza. visitors and residents of the area deserve to not have to confront such unwanted ugliness, the promoters should drop this right now and feel lucky that they were as well advised by, among others, articles such as this.

  5. Hello Jill,

    This comment is from the the designer of the F111 Memorials. It is my opinion the proposed monument is inappropriate at all levels of concept and response. I would like to discuss alternatives with anyone who will listen. Thanks

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