Book Review: The Unfrozen

Ottawa has more statues than any city in the land. As public art and political statements they run the gamut: haunting, contrived, tiresome, outrageous and wonderful, like the exhausted figure of Harold Fisher, head bowed, that’s survived a hundred winters on Carling Avenue.

Fisher as mayor built one of Canada’s first municipal hospitals in 1924, an era when surgery meant charity wards for the poor and spas for the wealthy. Ratepayers placed Fisher and his free public hospital in a cornfield where land was cheap. Surrounding acres over time became one of the prettiest collections of pre-war bungalows in a neighbourhood still called Civic Hospital. Fisher’s inscription reads: “If you would see his monument, look around you.” Beautiful.

Tours Inside the Snow Globe is fresh and intriguing, an investigation of statuary written at the close of an era that saw street protestors decapitate John A. Macdonald. Only a sociologist could explain what happened. Luckly, author Tonya Davidson is one of those.

“Monuments are touchable and they are touched,” writes Davidson. “Monuments seem fixed but they move.” They “produce certain effects of belonging and to inspire disgust, nostalgia and dissent throughout their lives.”

The point is not to agree. Where you may see Mayor Fisher as a monument to good government, Associate Professor Davidson might see stolen First Nations lands. Let the argument begin! Tours Inside The Snow Globe makes the compelling argument that, left or right, statues matter.

“Monuments are deeply important, which is why they should stay or go, and they are also not enough, not everything, nor are they necessarily precious,” Davidson explains. But they are more than stone and metal: “The rituals performed at monuments are entirely driven by emotion. Monuments are effectively charged urban sites, secured and moved by nostalgia and other desires.”

“People seem to be much more attached to monuments than they are, for example, to reading books of history or visiting museums,” writes Davidson, a self-described monument scholar. “Monuments are about the present, and in the present they are alive, dynamic, fleshy even; they are sites of communion.””

An example: Officialdom’s reaction in 2022 when Freedom Convoy protestors decorated a statue of Terry Fox with a ball cap and Canadian flag upside down, the maritime symbol of distress. “Unacceptable,” said the mayor. “Defacement,” said the CBC. “Horrified,” Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters. “We saw that terrible picture of the Terry Fox statue desecrated and I have to tell you my kids were just shocked.”

Tours Inside The Snow Globe is part chronicle, part walking tour. It critically examines Canadiana from the Boer War Memorial financed by schoolchildren’s pennies to the 1911 Parliament Hill statue depicting Young Canada as a strikingly buxom woman in a toga that today is “featured in many contemporary selfies.”

“There’s the Monument to Fallen Diplomats in the western part of Ottawa that marks the spot where Turkish diplomat Atilla Altikat was murdered in 1982” – a shooting that remains unsolved –  “and the location on Sparks Street where Thomas D’Arcy McGee was assassinated,” writes Davidson. Contrived, outrageous or haunting, monuments “are often mobile in surprising and destabilizing ways.”

By Holly Doan

Tours Inside the Snow Globe: Ottawa Monuments and National Belonging, by Tonya Davidson; Wilfrid Laurier University Press; 330 pages; ISBN 9781-7711-26021; $38.30

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