Originally imagined as a contemplative memorial to the war dead, the Mother Canada concept allegedly ballooned out of control, turning a modest three-metre statue into a controversial colossus, according to a design firm partner from the project.
Patrick Morello, a partner in the design firm of Toronto-based LANDinc — the firm originally retained in 2011 to develop the memorial concept — told National Observer Thursday that the original statue was about the size of a light-post.
But Morello said Tony Trigiani — the Toronto businessman who heads the memorial foundation — “took hold" of an initial rough concept for the Mother Canada statue and “he had an image for Mother Canada." Morello alleges that Trigiani kept asking for it to be stretched.
“He eventually worked directly with the rendering artist. There was no design.”
Meg Stokes, director of community and corporation engagement for the Never Forgotten National Memorial Foundation, told National Observer Trigiani was not available for an interview and that the foundation would not get into "personal matters" between Trigiani and Morello."
Stokes said that the Mother Canada statue is modeled after the “Canada Bereft” statue at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France that has stood there for nearly 80 years. "She will have her arms stretched out across the Atlantic welcoming home our fallen soldiers resting abroad."
According to Morello, the three-metre statue soon turned into a monstrous statue that could stand as tall as 30-metres from its base and was quickly dubbed “Mother Zombie” by a disparaging public once memorial design was revealed.
“There was mention of bringing in other problematic elements like a helicopter pad, a place for ships to come in. The discussions started to get pretty fantastic,” Morello said.
“It has morphed into an uncontrollable and unsustainable facility,” Morello wrote in a letter in late January, 2016 to Sean Howard, spokesperson for the group Friends of Green Cove, which opposes the memorial.
“The original thought was at that point on the site where the statue is located there would be a quiet space for reflection for 1-2 individuals.”
The design firm also renounced the project in its letter to the Friends of Green Cove.
“We are not in support of the project at its proposed location with its current form and program even though we originally helped develop the project,” Morello wrote.
In the correspondence Morello said he began to see his client’s “fixation on the statue that grew numerous times over the period of a few months (It was literally stretched from normal proportions to something that is hard to describe).”
Added Morello: “Unfortunately this happened with our involvement, as our thinking was that a sculpture competition would eventually weed out this Client-driven proposal.”
But the sculpture never did go to competition.
Morello also told Howard in the letter that Green Cove in Cape Breton’s Highlands National Park was not the preferred site for the memorial and wasn’t even on the original list of selected sites.
The sites originally chosen for the location of the memorial were Louisbourg, the Keltic Lodge and Lakie’s Head, all in Cape Breton. But Morello said Trigiani spotted Green Cove on his travels through the island and requested that Parks Canada consider that site for the memorial.
In May 2012, LANDinc sent Trigiani a project planning memorandum. At that time the project had reached two important milestones: the Fundraising Network had submitted a campaign planning study and then federal, Tory Environment Minister Peter Kent had given the memorial a letter of endorsement.
At this stage in the process, LANDinc believed it was important to outline some of the issues.
Regarding the now towering statute and the associated changes, the design firm commented: “While this work has allowed for the exploration of your grand vision for the statue, there will be, in the next phases, an increased risk to showing the statue as a resolved design element.
“Figure statues are often polarizing objects for public criticism, criticism that can gain steam and even sink a project.”
The firm cited Gumby goes to Heaven as a “prime example of a high profile, privately funded Memorial statute falling victim to this kind of scrutiny.”
(The latter was a Toronto memorial erected in 1984 to Canadian airmen that attracted protest for its esthetic design and gained its nickname after vandals spray painted the foot of the statue with the phrase.)
Warned LANDinc: “To date in the Memorial project, there have been comments of caution on the explicitness and scale of the Statue.”
Morello said a fundraising report also came out about then that voiced a number of concerns about the location, that it would not get the visitors needed to be sustainable from an economic point of view.
A number of fundraisers urged Trigiani to develop a business case, Morello said, but the project chair “didn’t like to hear things that strayed from his vision.”
"This became a project that lost integrity."
By mid-2012 Morello said Trigiani had received some support from the Privy Council and the project had reached the Prime Minister’s office.
In a July 2012 letter obtained by National Observer and addressed to Salpie Stepanian, manager of the prime minister’s correspondence unit, Trigiani wrote: “On behalf of all those of us involved with the ‘Never Forgotten National Memorial’ project, I would like to express our deepest appreciation for the interest and the personal attention now given by the Prime Minister to this matter.”
But Morello says at that crucial stage, Trigiani brushed aside LANDinc’s recommendations and pushed the company to the sidelines, telling Morello that he was focusing on the wrong things.
“We also urged him to reconsider the statue, which I think really offended him.”
Sean Howard, spokesperson for the Friends of Green Cove, said, “It confirms the worst suspicions, that this became a project that lost integrity and control at a certain point.”
Howard noted that LANDinc’s reward for raising concerns and “making some prudent recommendations was to be dropped from the team.”
The proposed memorial includes a gateway, procession pathway and sentry columns, an interpretative centre and a recognition and gratitude pavilion. The statue on its base could stretch as high as 30 metres.
The memorial has attracted considerable animosity, brought international scorn, and received scathing comment from former national park heads, who maintain that public consultation on the project was minimal and rushed.
In the comments in the draft impact analysis done on the memorial, people called the statue “tasteless” and its location “bizarre and offensive.”
The Guardian UK lambasted the statue as an “awkwardly remodeled, vastly upscaled version” of Canada Bereft, the statue commemorating the war dead near Vimy, France.
Despite the long, strange saga of the Mother Canada memorial, Morello still believes it should be built - although not in its current form.
"The whole idea of this memorial was an amazing venture and an amazing thought. The effort and the idea I don’t think, should be damaged in this whole process. It’s kind of like the wrong location and the final outcome; it just needs more refinement."