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‘Self-indulgent’: Churchill statue plans stir public controversy, perplexity over motivation

Premier Jason Kenney, and Mark Milke, president of the Sir Winston Churchill Society of Calgary, made a surprise announcement on Aug. 24 that a statue of Winston Churchill would be added to the McDougall Centre plaza.

They announced the statue would be placed on the west lawn of the Calgary provincial building, facing Turner Valley, where, according to Milke, “he loved the oil sector.” Milke also mentioned Churchill’s love of the Rocky Mountains, which he visited in 1929.

“Winston Churchill was the greatest defender of democracy in the 20th century, and in my view the century’s single greatest leader,” said Premier Kenney.

The statue, when installed, will be a larger-than-life bronze likeness of the former First Lord of the Admiralty and British Prime Minister. The Sir Winston Churchill Society of Calgary raised $307,000 through private funding to create the statue, and to maintain it. The statue was created by Edmonton sculptor Danek Mozdzenski,

The statue is expected to be installed in the Spring of 2023.

University of Calgary politician scientist Lisa Young said she expected mixed reactions statue installation.

“I think we’re in a place in Alberta politics, where views are polarized about many things.”

“There will be a segment of Calgarians who will be delighted to see this statue go up. There’ll be lots of Calgarians who are completely indifferent. And then there are many who are opposed to it, or offended by it and see it as as hurtful.

“No matter what happens, whether it stays up in the future, or it comes down, it will be controversial for some period of time.”

Motivation for statue under question

In a press release sent out by the Sir Winston Churchill Society of Calgary, Premier Kenney said that Churchill “loved Canada, and Canadians love him.”

“Indeed, Calgary is one of the only cities in Canada not to have a Sir Winston Churchill statue, unlike Edmonton, whose citizens proudly named the symbolic centre of the city Sir Winston Churchill Square,” said Premier Kenney.

Churchill visited Canada many times throughout his life. He visited Alberta only once as part of a 1929 tour to visit the west coast of Canada and the United States.

In a press release sent out by the Alberta Government, the Premier thanked the donors of the Sir Winston Churchill Society of Calgary for raising funds for statue.

“Churchill would have seen the McDougall School when he visited Calgary in 1929. It is a fitting tribute to one of the greatest champions of parliamentary democracy that he will be memorialized at the seat of Alberta’s government in Calgary, a great city of enterprise,” the statement read.

Young called the statue a “self-indulgence” for the Premier.

“He’s in his last weeks as Premier, and he’s using his position as premier to do something for his close colleagues in the Churchill society,” she said.

Milke, who serves as the president for the society, was also a principal architect for Kenney’s 2019 United Conservative Party platform. Following the election, Milke served as the executive director for research for the Canadian Energy Centre. It’s more colloquially known by the public as the energy war room.

“Churchill, I think is a personal hero for the premiere, which is fine, he’s entitled to that. I’m not sure that this is something that reflects a shared value of Albertans. So it raises some questions about judgment in my mind,” said Young.

Leader not in minds of contemporary Calgarians

Young said that the statue wasn’t commemorating any important occasion, or any special relationship to Calgary.

“Why a British prime minister in front of the Calgary provincial government building, right? It’s not commemorating any occasion, it’s not commemorating any special relationship with Alberta, it’s really just a function of the Premier’s respect for this individual.”

Although Alberta has a significant number of schools, parks, and even a mountain range named after the leader, those were largely confined to the period during the end of Churchill’s life and following his death in 1965.

Edmonton had the only Churchill Society to operate during the Prime Minister’s life.

“In Calgary, there is high school named after him, there is a swimming pool named after him—those were built 50 years ago, and they made sense contextually at that moment,” Young said.

“It was still the post WW2 era, and Churchill was more of a contemporary figure. There was still more of a sense of Canada being in a special relationship with with the UK, and Calgary and Canada were much less diverse places than they are now.”

Writer Michael Hingston wrote for Atlas Obscura in 2016 on the legacy of Alberta as a hotspot for Churchill naming. Citing the then contemporary feelings of Edmontonians on Churchill, he said “many of the other names in use today, including the LRT station, include Churchill less as an active endorsement of the man than as a basic geographic reference point to the square already named after him.”

“Nobody’s particularly thinking about Churchill’s role historically because of contemporary events,” said Young.

Churchill legacy not a universally shared one

Churchill’s legacy is a complicated one. More recent 21st Century critical analysis of his roles in the British government has garnered him a mixed legacy.

Churchill is best known for his role as the Prime Minister of Great Britain during WW2, leading that nation as part of the allied effort in the war against fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

“There is no single person more responsible for the defeat of fascism and the evils of the Nazi regime in the Second World War than Sir Winston Churchill. He was a gigantic figure, though not perfect,” said Premier Kenney.

“Like every leader, he made mistakes in a life that spanned decades of public service during times of crisis and consequence. Yet he stands almost universally recognized as one of the greatest champions of parliamentary democracy in history.”

In an opinion piece written for the Calgary Herald by Milke, he called the statue new art to be loaned to the people of Alberta in perpetuity in remembrance of Churchill’s legacy.

“In 2022, one must address reflexive critics who argue we should not celebrate historical figures given their views do not perfectly align with ours today. That’s an impossible standard. We are not yet perfect and future generations will critique some of our 21st-century notions,” he wrote.

Reaction on social media was mixed, with many Calgarians asking why now for the statue, or even why at all. Others pointed to racist statements that Churchill had throughout his lifetime, particularly towards people in India, Palestine, and Indigenous Canadians and Americans.

Among that contemporary criticism of Churchill was his role in the 1943 Bengal Famine, which resulted in the death of three million Indians. There is a consensus amongst historians and economists that the famine was a result of deliberate wartime policies that deprived the population of food.

Supporters of the statue, and of Premier Kenney lashed back at the criticism online. The Unite Alberta Twitter account, run by the deputy director of government communications for the Premier, Harrison Fleming, said that “the wilting lilies of the Twitteratti are either vandals of history or ignorant to it. Proud to be in a province that actually celebrates the titans of democracy.”

Churchill statue in Edmonton vandalized in 2021

In 2021, the statue of Churchill in Edmonton was defaced in Edmonton. No motive was ascribed to the vandalism. It occurred during a series of statue vandalism across the nation during a period of heightened public awareness of racist statements made by historic figures.

Churchill was quoted in a CBC article about that vandalism, saying in 1937 that “I do not admit, for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the Black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”

At the time, Premier Kenney said on social media that “no member of the greatest generation can meet the standards of contemporary wokeness. But we should still honour those who secured our peace and freedom.”

Young said that the statue in Calgary could serve as a reminder of that colonial era, especially for Indo-Canadians.

“It’s not unproblematic to put up a statue of a British prime minister from a quasi-colonial era, in this day and age as many Canadians are really trying to come to terms with the history of colonialism,” she said.

“It’s prioritizing the premier’s views and the views of a small group of people around the premier over any attempt to reflect the views and considerations of the diverse Calgary community.”

Young said that putting up a statue was about making choices about what view of history would be valued.