Memorial to the Victims of Communism: Chronicle of a Political Coup

With the federal elections barely behind us, this is an opportune moment to take stock of the cultural heritage passed on by the Conservative government, which was in power in Canada for nearly a decade. In the national capital, Ottawa, several monuments have been erected since 2006 (War of 1812 Monument, Canadian Firefighters Monument, Animals in War Dedication, Royal Canadian Navy Monument) while others are currently under preparation. This is the case for the Memorial to the Victims of Communism, which was initially scheduled for the fall of 2015, but then postponed due to a string of criticisms that suspended the project’s continuation until after the election. The vigorous debate around this project is rooted in the value of the capital’s public space as a place for representing our collective identity: memorial sites erected there institute a narrative and an iconography that contribute to forging patriotic emblems. They act as a symbolic matrix of shared identity references. The controversy surrounding the Memorial to the Victims of Communism is an opportunity to question the democratic governance of art put to the service of national memory. The Ottawa Citizen’s remarkable interview and investigative journalism efforts, supported by an access to information request, provided a glimpse into what was going on behind the scenes of this project.1

Anticommunism and Tribute to Liberty

There are several monuments dedicated to victims of communism elsewhere in the world. Built in the wake of the Soviet bloc’s collapse, they commemorate the bloody repression of populations under the iron rule of authoritarian regimes. In 2001, a monument to the victims of the repression during the communist era (1948-1989) was inaugurated in Prague. Another was inaugurated in 2007 in Washington D.C. Titled The Goddess of Democracy, the monument is a reproduction of a sculpture that Chinese students erected in Tiananmen Square during the 1989 uprising. Both these monuments have been met with various forms of protest. In Prague, the monument was the target of two bombings in 2003, thus giving expression to the still lingering political tensions on the Czech political scene regarding this painful time in the nation’s history.

In the case of the Washington D.C. monument and the future Canadian monument, the debate is more ideological, since their scope exceeds the framework of a circumscribed historical event. The American and Canadian monuments do not commemorate an historical episode delimited in space and time. Instead, they condemn all the crimes committed by any past, present or future communist regime. More broadly, they condemn communist thought outright, in all its forms, from its beginnings to its future developments. To back this sweeping condemnation, the notion of liberty is presented as the natural antithesis of communism (erasing any reference to the historical categories of liberalism and capitalism in the process): the Goddess of Democracy is a stylized reproduction of the Statue of Liberty, the quintessential American symbol, and the group that is backing the construction of the Ottawa monument is called Tribute to Liberty.

After the fall of the USSR in the early 1990s, open access to the state archives revealed the scope of the mass crimes perpetrated by the Stalinist regime in a new light, crimes that many sympathizers had turned a blind eye to in the 1950s and 1960s. This re-evaluation led to a wealth of published studies on the subject of abuses committed by other communist regimes throughout the world (notably under Mao and the Khmers Rouges). But some of these studies also open the door to an historical reductionism, resulting in a political instrumentalization of this legitimate scientific and memorial undertaking.

As a regulating apparatus, the domain of monuments is subjected to the influence of governments in power. The political stakes of collective memory are rooted in the fact that the past is constantly reframed and reinterpreted on the basis of current socio-political interests.2 In Canada, the Memorial to the Victims of Communism serves several of the Conservative government’s interests. At the international level, Prime Minister Stephen Harper used it to attack the Russian intervention in Ukraine, tracing a direct link between the past and present ambitions of Russian imperialism. At the domestic level, the monument serves the Conservative party’s campaign to cater to immigrant groups, particularly Ukrainian, Polish, Cambodian and Chinese ones. It also was able to disqualify the memory of Canadian communist movements, likening them to the worst of criminal figures: “Nazism, Marxist-Leninism, today, terrorism – they all have one thing in common: the destruction, the end, of human liberty,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper claimed during a Tribute to Liberty fundraising dinner.3

This commemoration, while focused on foreign crimes, is mute in regard to the remembrance of civil liberties violations that occurred on Canadian soil during the “witch hunts,” which began in the interval between the two world wars and escalated during the cold war. After the Russian Revolution, Canadian immigration policy was modified to discriminate and refuse applicants of various leftist political persuasions. In the paranoid climate following World War II, the Canadian government, supported by the clergy and both right and left wing parties, implemented a system of political repression against communist sympathisers (known or suspected) using mass surveillance, intimidation, censorship, incarceration and deportation.4 In Quebec, the Duplessis government passed the Padlock act in 1937 to protect the province from communist propaganda, and used this to close several newspapers. Twenty years later, the Supreme Court of Canada declared this act to be unconstitutional. Fear of the enemy within served more broadly as an excuse to weaken union movements, to suppress labour, radical, leftist or progressive agitation and to gag any anti-conformist thought.

Arts and science communities particularly were watched. Duplessis censored several National Film Board productions, because they were deemed to be subversive.5 Radio-Canada employees and symphony orchestra musicians were expelled or discharged simply for having a communist sympathizer in their circle of friends.6 To facilitate the surveillance of Canadian civil servants, the RCMP created a particularly ignoble instrument, called the “fruit machine.” Used until the end of the 60s, this biological measuring device served to give “homosexuality tests” to employees who were discharged at the slightest suspicion, based on the fear that the enemy would extract sensitive information from them by threatening to publicly reveal their sexual orientation.7 The social climate was so unhealthy that those who dared raise the question of civil liberties, or who campaigned for peace with the USSR, were treated as communists and thus also became victims of intolerance.

Memorial to the victims of Communims, 2015. Project’s views created by the architecture studio ABSTRACKT. Photos: Courtesy of Tribute to Liberty.

Some justify these extreme measures as necessary for protecting state security in the face of the Soviet enemy. Though they remain completely inacceptable, these drifts towards authoritarianism are hard to avoid in times of war. But must one celebrate them by bringing Canadian anticommunism, including its vilest forms of persecution, to the heights of Parliament Hill, to a site adjacent to the Supreme Court of Canada, the nation’s highest symbol of justice? Is it a “tribute to liberty” to legitimize the violation of civil rights for the purposes of ideological persecution? In this tribute to liberty, it is not only the freedom of foreign people who have thrown off the totalitarian yoke that is being celebrated, it is also the freedom to persecute, on Canadian soil, all those who call the dominant ideology into question.

Memorial to the victims of Communims, 2015. Project’s views created by the architecture studio ABSTRACKT. Photos: Courtesy of Tribute to Liberty.
A Political Initiative Imposed from Above

In a Scarborough community centre park, a monument was built in 1989 to commemorate the Czechoslovak victims of Soviet oppression. Called Crucified Again, it depicts a man in bronze crucified on a hammer and sickle. It is against this backdrop that journalist Don Butler retraces the idea for the projected Ottawa monument. Butler reports that the Conservative minister Jason Kenney was visiting the ambassador of the Czech Republic. Just recently appointed Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity, Kenny was also in charge of drawing ethno-cultural communities, traditionally affiliated with the Liberal party, to the Conservative party. Struck by the monument’s relevance, Kenney demonstrated an interest in making it more visible, and the ambassador then apparently suggested Ottawa as the ideal location. The story that follows is based on information published in the Ottawa Citizen.

Since the government wanted to conceal who the initiator of the project was, a non-partisan group of Canadians from various former communist countries was assembled by the ambassador. In close consultation with Minister Kenney’s office, the group worked for several months in 2008 to submit a proposal to the National Capital Commission (NCC). Suddenly, while the project was taking shape, the group’s founding members (some of who were Liberals) were dismissed. A new coalition, backed by Kenney, was created under the name Tribute of Liberty. Although it also gathered members from the ethno-cultural communities (notably from the Ukrainian and Polish ones), most were loyal supporters of the Conservative party, including several candidates in the last elections, and at least one close friend of the minister. The members of the first group tried to be part of the new organization, but they were quickly forced to resign. In the summer of 2008, this coalition submitted a project to the NCC for a Monument to the Victims of Communism.

To study this proposal’s admissibility, the NCC mandated an external non-partisan committee made up of eminent historians and Canadian studies specialists. In February 2009, the committee submitted a negative report. The experts unanimously judged that the theme was not significant to Canadian history. Moreover, they considered that the subject was presented in a biased manner, and that the absence of a plurality of viewpoints would make this project a political gesture, rather than a commemorative one; thus it would risk dividing the population. The experts recommended that the monument be reoriented towards a parallel theme: Canada as a land of refuge for people fleeing political persecution as well as economic and environmental disasters. To this end, the committee suggested building a new structure inside the human rights monument already in place.

In the following months, the NCC recommended broadening the theme of the monument. It expressed its unease regarding the proposal’s incompatibility with official selection criteria, all the while mentioning that the project had support from the highest political leaders. Tribute to Liberty refused to abandon the central reference to communism and after long negotiations, the term “totalitarian” was added to the title, as well as a reference to the idea of refuge. At the end of 2009, the monument was called “A Monument to the Victims of Totalitarian Communism: Canada, A Land of Refuge.” The site set aside for it was located in the Garden of the Provinces and Territories, slightly away from Parliament Hill.

In 2010, Stephen Harper mentioned his support for the monument during the Speech from the Throne, and in 2012, the government reinforced its control over the project by giving the Department of Canadian Heritage the responsibility for overseeing it. The project rapidly took another turn: John Baird, then the minister responsible for the NCC, intervened and formally requested that the directors withdraw any mention of the term “totalitarian” from the organization’s activities, thus discretely modifying the monument’s title. A source cited by the Ottawa Citizen states that the government wanted to avoid suggesting that some forms of communism may be “acceptable.”8 Jason Kenney then set out to convince the minister of Public Works, who was reluctant at first, to modify the Parliament Hill urban lands plan—jointly developed and ratified after a lengthy process by all political parties—to allow for the construction of a monument on the vacant site next to the Supreme Court, which had been set aside a long time ago for a new Judicial district building. In August 2013, the ministers Jason Kenney and Chris Alexander publicly announced the transfer of the Memorial to the Victims of Communism to this new site, catching the NCC unawares, and, since it had not been consulted, the commission was forced to vote reluctantly several months later for the already made public change that was decreed unbeknownst to it.

The Harper government is not the first nor will it be the last to instrumentalize history with a partisan aim, but what is particularly unacceptable about the Memorial to the Victims of Communism is the way in which the project was imposed from the top of the ministerial hierarchy, by crushing the democratic principles that normally guide the construction of new monuments. From a political viewpoint, this arbitrary use of power for partisan purposes is an insult to the democratic principles of the sound management of government. On a symbolic level, this project’s duplicity takes on a new face with the current refugee crisis in Europe. The Hungarian government, an enthusiastic and generous contributor to the monument project, has publicly emphasized its gratitude towards Canada for welcoming tens of thousands of Hungarian refugees after the 1956 Hungarian revolution. However, confronted with the influx of Syrians at its borders, Hungary until now has welcomed war-fleeing civilians with a fortification of barbed wire fences.

Nathalie Casemajor is a Communications Studies professor in the Department of Social Sciences at Université du Québec en Outaouais. She holds degrees from UQAM and Université Lille 3, and was a postdoctoral fellow at INRS (Centre Urbanisation, Culture et Société) and in the Department of Art History and Communications at McGill University. Her research focuses on digital media, cultural practices and urban space. Over the past few years, she has worked as a coordinator in various community collectives and cultural organizations.

Translated by Bernard Schütze


  1. For more on this, see the long series of articles Don Butler wrote in 2014 and 2015 in the Ottawa Citizen.
  2. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
  3. Statement by the Prime Minister of Canada in Toronto, May 30, 2014. On line. Accessed on October 25, 2015.
  4. Marcel Fournier, Communisme et anticommunisme au Québec: 1920-1950, Québec: Editions coopératives Albert Saint-Martin, 1979. Also see Robert Comeau et Bernard Dionne, Le droit de se taire: histoire des communistes au Québec, de la Première Guerre mondiale à la Révolution tranquille, Montréal: VLB Éditeur, 1989.
  5. David MacKenzie (trans: Fabien Saint-Jacques), Canada’s Red Scare: 1945-1957, Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association, 2001.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Don Butler, “How John Baird erased ‘totalitarian’ from the Victims of Communism Memorial”, in the Ottawa Citizen,” March 24, 2015. On line. Accessed on October 25, 2015.