Playfulness and History: Sackville’s GFG Stanley Statue

By Andrew Nurse

Sackville, New Brunswick’s, George F.G. Stanley Canada 150 commemorative sculpting would be an odd candidate to be part of Canada’s statue wars. And it isn’t. To the best of my knowledge, no one has asked that the statue be removed. It has not been sprayed with graffiti or knocked it over.

Photo by author

Precisely the opposite. Rather than becoming the subject of criticism, local culture seems to express care and concern for the statue by dressing it up, adding a hat on cold days, masks during COVID-19, and scarves, among other articles of clothing. This shows an odd but interesting playfulness concerning historical commemoration.

In Sackville, there are not one but two historical markers indicating the importance of the historian and designer of the national flag, George F.G. Stanley.

The first is a commemorative stone marker unveiled, as one might expect, on Canada Day in 1995. It marked the thirtieth anniversary of the adoption of the Maple Leaf as Canada’s national flag. The marker is set in front of the town’s public library, a high-traffic point because of its connection to a local park that also doubles in warmer months as the site of a Saturday morning farmers market. It identifies Stanley as the designer of Canada’s red maple leaf flag but also sets him in a professional, personal, and local context. Its weight, size, and message convey the seriousness of commemoration and establish a local claim to Stanley as a significant historical figure.

The other is a sculpture crafted by Christian Toth, unveiled in 2018, again on Canada Day. A Google street view can be found linked on the Veterans Affairs Military Memorials in Canada website. Toth won the competition for this statue, which was financially supported by the Government of New Brunswick through its Program for Municipal Development and as part of the Canada 150 commemorations.

This image of Stanley notes many of the same characteristics as the earlier stone marker but focuses more directly on the flag. It is a life-sized bronze rendering of Stanley seated on a park bench holding his – and hence Canada’s – flag design. An effort has been made to create a friendly approach to the commemoration. For instance, Stanley is referred to informally as “George.” Online interpretive notes associated with the statue provide an open-ended way of seeing it:

“The sculpture is meant to convey George contemplating about the flag’s design and also left open to interpretation to the viewer as to what George is actually thinking.”

Markers of George Stanley are not in short supply, in Sackville or elsewhere.

I teach in Canadian Studies at Mount Allison, and we host an annual George Stanley Lecture. Stanley Drive sits outside of town and in other parts of the country are schools named after him, statues that mark his historical importance, primarily for designing the national flag.

There can be an open discussion about how well Stanley’s historical writings have aged but, by all accounts, he had a lifelong commitment to education and public service.

What is interesting is that community members seem to have responded to the friendlier, more open-ended construction of Stanley in kind. I see the statue as I stroll across town to pick up mail or groceries and started to wonder what this was all about. What did the clothing of the Stanley sculpting say about how at least some community members related to the past? The sculpting is prominently positioned. The hats and masks added anonymously to it are meant to be seen.

I’ll suggest that the absence of controversy does not point to some sort of community historical consensus. Only a few years ago, the potential addition of another armoured military vehicle to Sackville’s memorial park triggered an extended – and acrimonious – social media debate.

Instead, it seems to me to point in two different directions.

First, it highlights an ethic of care. The statue is inanimate but adding winter clothing during a cold snap seems to show concern for the statue itself, as does adding a mask during COVID outbreaks.

Stanley with Mask (Visions United)

I doubt the people who clothed the statue would want me to extend this assessment into a metaphor about the care of the past, but it at least shows a concern for the historical markers, a concern likely amplified by the sculpture’s anthropomorphic character. Perhaps more significantly, historical commemoration becomes a place that serves as a spontaneous public expression of care.

Second, clothing or protecting the statue also establishes a particular relationship with the past that could be characterized as playfulness. This is something different than the well-studied popular culture carnivalesque inversions that are intended to subvert power inequalities. Playfulness is also establishing a different kind of connection to the past and I think we need to wonder about this.

Sackville’s Stanley commemorations connect the community to national narratives and, in particular, the flag. This narrative, through Stanley, connects the community to a particular story of nation. Playfulness does not directly challenge this narrative but, as a historical practice, it works in different ways. Commemoration becomes a site of humourous, but caring, spectacle. Commemorations themselves, even those as seemingly solid as Toth’s Stanley, are subject to change and so become more fluid in the meanings they carry.

There may be some reasons to be concerned about playfulness as a historical practice and its relationship to the past. It seems to run close to the artificial consumeristic spectacle that Ian McKay and others have rightly criticized.

Yet, I wonder if it can also be something different. I recently noticed that, in the United States, the Utah Historical Society ran a Women’s History Month bingo. The bingo encouraged participants to listen to podcasts, attend heritage events, or go to a museum. My local heritage society has, in the past, organized a social at a heritage site in the summer. In the past, I thought of this as so much meaningless postmodern pastiche but then, it struck me, I’ve never really asked participants – or the heritage society – what they were trying to accomplish and why.

The playful approach to the Stanley sculpture suggests one final thing.

It suggests that some community members, at least, see heritage and historical commemoration as public spaces into which one can enter happily. This might not be a sound approach to all – or, even most – commemoration. But the fact that people want to have a positive perspective on the presentation of the past to which they feel they can contribute, does not strike me as a bad thing.

Andrew Nurse is a Canadian Studies Professor at Mount Allison University.

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