Feds delay unveiling of controversial Memorial to the Victims of Communism yet again

‘The Government of Canada is doing its due diligence to ensure all aspects of the memorial remain compatible with Canadian values on democracy and human rights’

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The Canadian government has quietly postponed the planned November unveiling of the controversial, $7.5-million Memorial to the Victims of Communism, now essentially completed at a fenced-off site along Wellington Street in downtown Ottawa.

A statement posted at a government website for the project on Oct. 18 said that “although the Memorial to the Victims of Communism – Canada, a Land of Refuge was scheduled to be inaugurated by the end of 2023, the Government of Canada is doing its due diligence to ensure all aspects of the memorial remain compatible with Canadian values on democracy and human rights.”

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The statement from the Department of Canadian Heritage also indicated the Liberal government remains “committed to completing this project” which was initiated by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper in 2008 and originally expected to be in place more than a decade ago.

The long-delayed memorial “will be inaugurated in 2024, at a date to be selected in consultation with the main proponent of the project, Tribute to Liberty.”

The memorial has been the focus of multiple controversies over its exact purpose, location, size and cost over the last 15 years. The price tag for the project has ballooned to an estimated $7.5 million — including $6 million in public funds — from an original budget of $1.5 million funded entirely with private donations from Tribute to Liberty, the charitable organization the driving force behind the monument.

“Arc of Memory” is a four-metre high, 21-metre-long sculptural installation, made from 4,000 bronze rods mounted on 365 steel fins in two sections or “wings”. Each of the 365 fins points at a unique angle of the sun every hour of every day. According to an official description of the project, “the memorial would be split in the middle at winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, inviting visitors to step through in a metaphorical journey from darkness and oppression to lightness and liberty.”

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It appears to have been finished for weeks and work crews have largely completed the landscaping around the site immediately west of the Garden of the Provinces and Territories along Wellington Street and in the shadow of Christ Church Cathedral.

The latest postponement comes in the wake of the embarrassing tribute paid in Parliament in September to Yaroslav Hunka, an elderly Ukrainian-Canadian veteran who fought with a Nazi SS unit in the Second World War and later immigrated to Ontario.

The humiliating blunder, which took place in the presence of visiting Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, cost Liberal MP Anthony Rota his position as Speaker of the House of Commons and reverberated around the world — even feeding into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s warped narrative that his country’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine was launched to “de-Nazify” Zelenskyy’s nation.

Concerns that the Memorial to the Victims of Communism could honour certain Nazi-linked individuals from wartime Europe — where nationalists in many regions resisting Soviet occupation were integrated with Nazi forces — had previously been raised over some donations made to Tribute to Liberty.

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Recent concerns

In 2021, CBC published a report by independent journalist Taylor C. Noakes that revealed donations had been made “in honour of known fascists and Nazi collaborators” such as wartime Croatian leader Ante Pavelić, who headed a Nazi puppet state that controlled part of Axis-occupied Yugoslavia during the Second World War, and Nazi collaborator Roman Shukhevych, leader of the nationalist Ukrainian Insurgent Army and perpetrator of war crimes.

Pavelić is blamed for the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews and Romani and hundreds of thousands of Serbs in the Balkans during the Holocaust because of his regime’s enthusiastic collaboration with Nazi Germany in committing genocide against targeted populations.

Shukhevych has also been branded a war criminal for directing the massacre of tens of thousands of Poles during a Second World War frenzy of ethnic cleansing in Eastern Galicia along the Ukraine-Poland border.

The 2021 revelation about Tribute to Liberty donations in honour of Pavelić and Shukhevych prompted Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, to warn in the CBC story that “if Canada commemorates Ante Pavelić or Roman Shukhevych, it can throw its human rights record in the trash.”

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In a 2022 article published in the academic journal Memory Studies, York University scholar Daphne Winland — author of a book about the Croatian diaspora community in Canada — reflected on the challenges faced in commemorating victims of communism in the former Yugoslavia.

“The links forged by Croats with other diasporas in Canada collaborating on a memorial in the nation’s capital dedicated to victims of communist regimes, I argue, is a strategic move to help reinforce the legitimacy of historic grievances against socialist Yugoslavia. More importantly, the memorial aids in the effort to gain recognition in Canada for Croats as victims of communism,” writes Winland.

“Nonetheless, the contested legacy of the role of Croats in atrocities in Yugoslavia during World War II continues to generate negative publicity for the memorial and its supporters . . . Since its beginnings, the monument has raised concerns among journalists, historians, politicians and others about the historical complicity of some of the memorial’s supporters with fascist regimes.”

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OTTAWA - Nov 6, 2023 -- Memorial to the Victims of Communism in Ottawa Monday.
The two wings of the Arc of Memory sculptural installation at the centre of the Memorial to the Victims of Communism — Canada, A Land of Refuge have been in place for weeks, and an official unveiling expected in November has now been delayed. Photo by Tony Caldwell /Postmedia

Turbulent history

The idea for a national memorial to victims of communism was sparked in 2007 during a visit by former federal Conservative cabinet minister Jason Kenney to Masaryktown, a private nine-hectare park in Scarborough, Ont. owned by Toronto’s Czech and Slovak communities. The future Alberta premier, then the federal secretary of state for multiculturalism in the Harper government, was visiting the site with Pavel Vosalik, then the Czech ambassador to Canada, when the two encountered a monument on the park’s grounds and began discussing the need for a more high-profile memorial.

Titled Crucified Again, the Scarborough monument depicts a man crucified on a hammer and sickle, symbolizing Soviet oppression. The memorial had been unveiled in 1989 to honour the millions who had suffered or died at the hands of communist regimes throughout the world.

Kenney went on to nurture the planned memorial with Eastern European as well as Asian and African diaspora communities in Canada, whose members came from countries with a history of communist oppression. From the outset, Kenney’s involvement in the project raised concerns among some observers that the memorial push was a partisan scheme being used by the federal Conservatives to shore up electoral support among the diaspora communities involved.

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The initiative was seen to be in keeping with the minister’s broader — and increasingly successful — mission to help his party wrestle votes away from the Liberals, who had traditionally counted on strong support from Canada’s immigrant populations.

At the time, it was noted that more than eight million Canadians could trace their origins to countries with a history of oppressive communist rule.

Initial plans for a monument of massive proportions to be built in a prime location next to the Supreme Court of Canada sparked an outcry from a wide range of detractors, who questioned the Harper government’s motives and said the chosen site had long been earmarked for a future justice building.

The project became mired in a series of other controversies, and at one time was slated to be built where the National Holocaust Monument was unveiled in 2017 at a site east of the Canadian War Museum.

After the 2015 election of federal Liberal government, it was announced that a scaled-down version of the memorial would be built at a less prominent site next to the Garden of the Provinces and Territories. In the 2021 federal budget, an additional $4 million was committed to the ensure the completion of the monument.

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In late 2019, when work finally began at the site, Tribute to Liberty’s Ottawa-based chairman Ludwik Klimkowski told the Citizen he was “profoundly moved” that construction was underway at last.

“It’s a reflection of the diversity of Canada that we’re always talking about,” Klimkowski said at the time. “You have Vietnamese Canadians, Koreans, Tibetans, Chinese … all building this memorial together with Ukrainians, Poles, Czechs, Cubans and people from Africa. It’s a delightful reflection of Canada.”

Government reviewing “all aspects of the project”

Construction is being overseen by the National Capital Commission. An NCC spokesperson referred questions about the postponement to the Department of Canadian Heritage.

In response to an inquiry seeking further information about the postponement, a department spokesperson said government officials are now “reviewing all aspects of the project” before next year’s unveiling.

The review will “address any concerns with the project, including the names to be inscribed on the Wall of Remembrance,” said Caroline Czajkowski, spokesperson for the Department of Canadian Heritage. “Names of individuals, groups or events were provided by donors to Tribute to Liberty, the proponent of the project. It is important that all aspects of this monument remain compatible with Canadian values on democracy and human rights.”

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According to the Tribute to Liberty website, donations of $1,000 or more to the project entitle donors to have the name of a victim of communism inscribed on the memorial’s Wall of Remembrance and included in a “virtual Pathway to Liberty” at the group’s website. Larger gifts, such as $100,000 or more, also entitle donors to inscriptions on a plaque at the memorial site.

The main spokesperson for Tribute to Liberty did not respond to a request for comment about the postponement of the unveiling.

Randy Boswell is an Ottawa freelance writer and a journalism professor at Carleton University.

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Read more, from the 2015 archives:
A monumental controversy: History of the Memorial to Victims of Communism

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