12 October 2005

Our plastic history

For those who have visited capital cities anywhere in the western world, one is struck by the lengths to which nations go to preserve the visible symbols of their democracies.

United States Capitol
Washington D.C.

As this site notes, the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. is one of the most important symbolic and architectural buildings in the United States. The building was destroyed by fire in 1814, but rebuilt on the same site. As the American government grew in size, the building was expanded to accommodate senators and representatives from the new states. The Capitol is an integral part of the architecture of the city of Washington, reflecting geographically the constitutional division of powers among the legislative (Capitol), executive (White House/Old Executive Office Building) and judiciary (Supreme Court).

The United States Capitol, like the House of Parliament at Westminster or the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa are much more than symbols. They are the home of elected legislatures. They are living elements of the political, social, economic and cultural life of their countries. One can stand in the very halls where some of the most important national and international decisions were debated and decided and where new issues of equal importance are considered.

Return now to Newfoundland and Labrador from this sojourn among the Great Nations and one is struck by the management plan for the Colonial Building, released last week by the provincial government's Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation.

The plan is striking for its ability to reduce the significance of our historic seat of government to yet another mouldering artifact of the past. The language of this discussion paper is sterile: "The Colonial Building is one of the most significant heritage properties in Newfoundland and Labrador." It is said to have heritage character-defining elements.

The plan is also striking since a committee of government-appointed experts from government and the local arts, cultural and heritage associations has determined the fate of the building, now vacant with the absorption of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador into the bland collective known simply as The Rooms.

The Colonial Building is to be restored in some fashion and turned into offices for arts, cultural and heritage organizations in the province. There will be the obligatory charade of "stakeholder consultations", but the Colonial Building will continue to be what it has been since 1959 - home to yet another group of technocrats.

Colonial Building circa 1949
St. John's Newfoundland and Labrador

The management plan contains many references to the political history of Newfoundland and Labrador as well as the physical alterations to the building since it was built in the 1850s. The picture above shows the two German field howitzers (150 cm calibre) installed in the 1920s for example. They were part of an extensive collection of war booty that symbolized, in part, the sacrifices made by the Dominion of Newfoundland during the Great War.

In the 1950s, these howitzers were removed, a fountain installed in their place and the guns turned over to Branch 1 of the Royal Canadian Legion. They sat untended apart from the odd splash of paint behind a hedge until one of them was unceremoniously chopped to pieces and shipped of to Robin Hood Bay. Only by the quick action of a couple of local aficionados was the only such howitzer in Canada saved from a similar fate underneath a decomposing pile of scraps from Sobeys and Dominion.

Our history is often treated with the same sense that it is disposable or plastic.

Witness the legislature itself.

Once the home of elected government in Newfoundland and Labrador, the Colonial Building was abandoned in 1959 in favour of a new site for the House of Assembly on the upper stories of Joe Smallwood's Confederation edifice. That legislature space fell victim to concerns about safety and security. The Peckford administration started the move to its current site within the Confederation Building, replete with Turkish brothel interior design.

One may stand in the same place where Winston Churchill delivered some of the most stirring speeches during the fight against Nazi tyranny or where his predecessor Benjamin Disraeli helped built Britain into a global power. One may see the very spot where Roosevelt, Lincoln or Kennedy delivered their inaugural addresses or annual state of the union speeches.

Find the spot where Joe Smallwood introduced the Come by Chance refinery bills. Seek out the spot where the Meech Lake Accord was debated. They are gone, turned into work cubicles from Dilbert or public washrooms.

The management plan for the Colonial Building comes at an estimated cost of over $3.0 million. Only $120, 000 is required for annual operations. Nearly a million dollars will go to developing an exhibit and iinterpretation program, including a hideously overpriced "audio" tour and an equally expensive "virtual tour" on the internet. A brochure will set government back about $25, 000 while the combined price for interpretation "planning" alone will exceed $70, 000. The physical restoration of the Building will be over $2.0 million.

And for what purpose? So that the very same committees that sat in judgment of the building can have luxurious places in which to remove their gaiters. So that youth parliament can continue to meet there or that investiture ceremonies can take place in the former Legislative Council chamber or that "small weddings" may lease the building for some purpose.

At the same time that some people are spending precious energy to promote their peculiar piece of fabric for a flag, one of the most important foci of our province's history is to be turned into a slightly more grand set of offices for appointed officials.

What a sad comment on the true state of our sense of national pride.

Scrap the management plan.

Restore life to the Colonial Building by making it, once again, the home of our elected legislature. The financial cost would be about the same as the management plan's estimate.

More importantly, we would avoid for one of the few times in our recent history the cost of making our collective history something to be reshaped based on nothing more than the interests of those appointed to make a decision.