Monday, February 16, 2009

Bronzing R.B. Bennett

It is finally time for Canadians to make amends with R.B. Bennett.
Arthur Milnes suggests it's time for Richard Bedford Bennett, prime minister of Canada 1930-35, to get his statue on Parliament Hill.

I'm a little dubious of the notion that the electorate ever needs to "make amends" with those we elect to represent us. But let that go, for the larger questions are interesting:

What are the rules for bronzing prime ministers anyway?

And, how much space is there to keep adding prime ministers? Well, actually, quite a bit -- Lester Pearson's statue is way over at the Supreme Court of Canada building. There are various non-prime ministerial statues on the hill as well, including Queen Victoria and (collectively) the five women who won the Persons Case in 1929, plus pre-confederation luminaries Baldwin and Lafontaine. So the statuary customs seem to be flexible.

Milnes puts forward what looks like the worst possible criteria for erecting statues of eminent Canadians: political string-pulling. The Conservatives should put up a statue of Bennett, he says, because the Liberals have got statues of most of their dead prime ministers up, and the Tories are falling behind in the statue race.

Either Bennett deserves a statue or he does not. Arthur Milnes makes all the points he can in Bennett's favour (hey, he started the CBC). But his idea that the Conservatives should fling up Tory statues when they are in power and the Liberals should put up dead Grits when they come back is a terrible one. Honours should relate to... well, to deserving honour.

Late Update: Arthur Milnes gently reminds me that Lester Pearson's statue is on Parliament Hill. Louis St-Laurent's is by the Supreme Court Building. Thank you, sir.

Further update (Feb 19, 2009) Reader Brian Busby has weighed in, and I've promoted his ideas out of the Comments ghetto:
Is it not a policy that all former PMs be honoured with statues? I’ve certainly read as much. If not, let’s make it a policy, and rid ourselves of the sort of politics – the playing of ‘historical sweepstakes’ – that Arthur Milnes appears to be supporting.

I should add that Mr Milnes isn’t being entirely accurate in placing Meighen amongst those who have not received ‘their due with a statue on the Hill’. In fact, the old Tory party blocked Meighen’s statue.

In his biography, Ottawa Boy, the late Lloyd Francis recalls a visit to a Public Works warehouse to see statues commissioned of King and Meighen:

‘The statute of Mackenze King was conventional and posed no problem. The one of Arthur Meighen was grotesque, with his arms spread and his face turned to the sky as if he were contemplating Armageddon. The plight of a Liberal minister of Public Works [Jean Richard] was clear: If he caused the statue to be erected, there would be an outcry, but if he did not, he would be accused of slighting the memory of a distinguished Conservative prime minister.’

According to Francis, Richard found a way out of his quandary by seeking the recommendations of senators Eugene Forsey and Grattan O’Leary. Both advised against erecting the Meighen statue.

The statue now stands in St. Marys, Ontario. I can personally vouch for the accuracy of Francis’ description.

The rules on statues of dead prime ministers get ever murkier. But PMs are guaranteed a flag and a plaque by their place of burial if they wish: full prime ministerial gravesites tour downloadable as a .pdf from here.
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