Parks Canada is conducting fresh research into former governor general John Buchan after the Minister’s office ordered a halt to a planned 2017 commemoration, say Access To Information records. Buchan was a pre-war Nazi appeaser who described Hitler’s 1938 occupation of Austria as “very largely our own blame”.
Parks staff in a January 30 email were told to “begin looking into any issues surrounding Buchan”; “We were advised to off on this one because of potentially negative and sensitive historical associations,” wrote Dr. Alexandra Mosquin, manager of historical services with the agency’s history branch.
Buchan, a Scottish novelist, served as governor general from 1935 to his death from a stroke at Rideau Hall in 1940. “We need to look into his past,” wrote one Parks Canada staffer.
A bronze plaque honouring Buchan was to be unveiled in Ottawa last fall on the 79th anniversary of a Rideau Hall speech in which Buchan suggested Commonwealth veterans serve as peacekeepers in German-occupied territories. Buchan’s November 11, 1938 remarks at a Canadian Legion banquet came two days after Kristallnacht, the anti-Semitic pogrom that saw Jews killed and synagogues burned in Germany. Buchan made no mention of the event.
“All defence carries a face of war,” said Buchan; “The defence of a country is always a difficult question. You dare not neglect it or you may be taken at a sudden disadvantage. But it is possible to overdo it, and thereby increase the very risk which it was intended to prevent.”
Buchan in a February 19, 1939 speech to Canadian Boy Scouts said: “There are many isms today to perplex us – Nazism, communism, fascism and so forth – and the greatest nuisance they are! But most of them will cancel each other out. There is only one ism which kills the soul, and that is pessimism.”
The late novelist Mordechai Richler in 1969 described Buchan as a “virulent anti-Semite”, noting a reference in Buchan’s novel The Thirty-Nine Steps referred to “a little white-faced Jew in a bath chair with an eye like a rattlesnake.”
Governor General “Red Flagged”
Access To Information records disclosed Environment Minister Catherine McKenna’s office told staff to halt any program to honour Buchan. “I was never given a reason to hold, just that his unveiling would not happen,” wrote one Parks Canada communications officer in a January 12 email; “We were told not to try and move forward with this plaque last year, but we do not know why.”
The agency then proposed to unveil a Rideau Hall plaque to Buchan this year to coincide with the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Awards. “We want to get ready for criticism,” wrote Historian Dr. Mosquin; “It will require ordering the relevant books and articles and looking into the debate online.”
“Do we feel we have done sufficient research to be able to answer any questions?” Mandy McCarthy, director of heritage designations, wrote in a January 15 email. “At this point we do not have a push to plaque this individual, but it should be in our plan somewhere and red-flagged so that we can give the Minister’s Office the head’s up.”
The federal Historical Sites and Monuments Board in 2017 recommended a plaque for Buchan reading: “While Governor General of Canada, Buchan raised national awareness of the Arctic through his 1937 northern tour. He instilled a sense of Canadian pride in the country’s geographical and ethnocultural diversity long before this became official government policy.”
Dr. Richard Alway, chair of the Monuments Board, said in an earlier interview that Canadians should not shrink from controversy in commemorating historical figures. “The whole question is, does commemoration mean the same thing as celebration, or is it simply a matter of historical marking for purposes of identifying significance?” said Alway.
“There are many questions here with respect to naming, de-naming,” said Alway, who cited the removal in Halifax of a statute of Lt.-Gen. Edward Cornwallis, a founder of the city who issued a 1749 bounty for the killing of Mi’kmaq villagers. “I think it is important to step back and take a little bit of time to make sure the consideration is complete, that the principles are well-examined and analyzed, and that there’s a consensus built around them,” said Alway. “Then you go forward with the case by case analysis.”
Ottawa historian William Galbraith, author of a 2013 biography John Buchan: Model Governor General, wrote Buchan was capable of “dangerous rationalization” about Germany in pre-war years. “The error we too often make is viewing history with hindsight – bad history – and not understanding the opinion and mood of the time itself to explain why people acted and reacted the way they did,” Galbraith told Blacklock’s in 2013.
“What we’re dealing with is a question of approaching history honestly,” said Galbraith. “If we view that period honestly, we see millions of Canadians supporting appeasement well into 1938.”
Galbraith noted there is no evidence Buchan was anti-Semitic; his wife supported Montreal’s Hadassah chapter, and two sons served in the Second World War.
Access files indicated Parks Canada staff initially expressed enthusiasm for a Buchan commemoration. “He is a former GG,” wrote Marie-Helene Brisson, manager of ministerial events in a January 11 email. “Could be a cool thing to do at Rideau Hall.” Buchan introduced the Governor General’s Literary Awards in 1937.
B’nai Brith Canada said it welcomed a frank assessment of Buchan. “Taking the wrong position on a certain issue should not automatically disqualify political figures from commemoration,” said Michael Mostyn, CEO. “B’nai Brith does not believe in erasing uncomfortable parts of our past.”
“Commemoration provides a unique opportunity to assess both the positive and negative aspects of historical figures,” said Mostyn. “Commemoration materials ought to provide a ‘warts and all’ account of these figures that honestly and openly addresses their failings.”