News on the Canadian War Museum

By January 5, 2002 No Comments

While almost unrecorded in history, there is ample evidence to suggest that war and violence attended Canada’s Aboriginal peoples. The European settlement of Newfoundland and Quebec began as the nation-states of Europe positioned themselves in a period of strategic rivalry. The long contest between France and England determined the future of Canada – a process that was advanced by American-British conflicts and tensions between 1775 and 1867. Canada’s first real sense of itself as a nation developed in the First World War, and was further enhanced in the Second.

One might think that, for a nation conceived, shaped, born and matured as a result of conflict, Canada might have a really good museum on the subject. Guess what? We don’t.

Recent years and Ottawa’s antipathy to all things military have been unkind to the Canadian War Museum. Even in the 1970s, the majority of its collection was warehoused (often poorly) as the tiny building on Sussex Drive and its pathetic annex couldn’t house anything but a tiny fraction of an impressive collection of artifacts, trophy arms and art. Our national capital’s third industry, after government and electronics, is tourism. Moreover, a capital city is supposed to be a centerpiece of a nation’s history and culture. Ottawa does have some impressive museums, and manages to construct a new one every few years.

Starting the 1970s, the Museum of Natural History (in an impressive Victorian edifice) was restored and the cultural/anthropological collection was moved to the vast new Museum of Civilization on the Hull side of the Ottawa River. Contemporary aesthetics being what they are, the cultural illuminati have raved about the appearance of the new Museum of Civilization. The sort of people who are incapable of seeing the emperor’s new clothes have likened the building to a giant cow-flop bleaching in the sun.

In the 1970s, a vast new museum of science and technology was developed. Since then, the National Art Gallery has shifted into an impressive new tower of glass and light. Even the Aviation Museum got improved quarters in a gigantic new hanger. The War Museum has quietly sat in its tiny little building – almost unwanted and unloved. Unfortunately, like a neglected nestling, its squawking got some attention in the 1990s. First, it was placed under the aegis of the Museum of Civilization – which meant that another museum would be able to supervise its budget and programs. Among the unwelcome proposals that were put forward was a suggestion to rename it as the “The Museum of Conflict and Peacekeeping”.

Another proposal was to include a permanent Holocaust exhibit on the site. Notwithstanding the nature of the tragedy, it really had little to do with Canada at the time, nor would a memorial to the 5.3 million European Jews killed by the Nazis be all that fair to the other 15.6 million other victims of Nazi totalitarianism. Moreover, concentrating on the Nazis would exclude the victims of other totalitarian regimes that Canadians have fought against – including Imperial Japan, the Soviet Union and Communist China. In any event this proposal was shelved, but the controversy underscored the fact that the War Museum was critically short of space.

While the War Museum remains under the control of the Museum of Civilization, it was able to call on some excellent help to review its position and make suggestions for the future. Barney Danson, a veteran infantryman from WW II and one-time Liberal minister of Defence, was called on to look at the issue and Jack Granatstein, (one of Canada’s leading military historians) also became involved. The net result is that the War Museum is to receive a more spacious building – one that will permit a much larger portion of its art and artifacts to be displayed.

There is just one last hiccup. The former RCAF station at Rockcliffe Park in eastern Ottawa has plenty of room and is home to the Aviation Museum. It would have been a natural and perfect partnership to co-locate the War Museum beside it. Alas, when Jean Chretien first came to Ottawa, a large tract of slum housing and dirty industry lay sprawled to the west of the downtown core. The La Breton Flats was demolished as an eyesore and has remained undeveloped since. Sometime in the immediate future, the long empty area will be revitalized with a new series of developments. Unkind rumor has it this revitalization might be a tribute of sorts to a long-serving Prime Minister. The first of the buildings slated to go into the former slum area will be the new War Museum.

Oh well… perfect solutions are unnatural in Ottawa and complaints after long neglect are ungracious. Still, a Rockcliffe site for the new War Museum would have been perfect.