Monuments in Ontario: Grief, Beauty and Controversy

June 18, 2020 | Sam

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One of my favourite things to do when I visit a new place is to check out monuments and public art. Every street tells a story, and monuments are a big part of that narrative. They invite us to "read" our built environment.

Of course, I’m not travelling right now due to the pandemic. But Digital Archive Ontario — a collection of over 170,000 photos, postcards and more from Toronto Public Library — allows us to explore some of these monuments across the province.

Vintage flyer that reads in part Form of Procession to be observed at the Laying of the Foundation Stone of the Brock Monument on Queenston Heights on Thursday October 13 1853
Schedule for opening of monument for colonial administrator Isaac Brock. Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario. Baldwin Collection of Canadiana, 1853.


Evolution of the Monument

In Canada, many stone-and-plaque monuments were built after World War One. It was a time when communities were searching for a way to grieve together.

Across Ontario, many cenotaphs — monuments commemorating those who died at war — are built in a similar style. These are modeled after the memorial designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens for the Peace Day Parade in London, England on July 19, 1919. It was meant to be a temporary structure but the public loved it so much that it was rebuilt permanently.

In the academic article "Lutyens’ Cenotaph" (1989), architect Allan Greenberg writes, "in some mysterious way, the design of the Cenotaph embodied the nation’s deep and terrible bereavement."

Large stone monument with flags and wreathes
Cenotaph in Hamilton, Ontario. Toronto Star Photograph Archive.


"Reading" the Monument: Visual Analysis 

In cultural studies, visual analysis is a powerful tool for understanding the impact of any cultural artifact.  

In the case of Lutyens-style cenotaphs, I might say that their simple design provides a palette for different kinds of grief. It held broad appeal to people with varying experiences, thoughts, opinions and beliefs towards the war. Its wide base is also inviting, leaving room for impromptu flowers as well as the annual wreaths placed on Remembrance Day. 

If you’re interested in this kind of analysis, check out this visual analysis explainer from Duke University (PDF). Or just take a good look at your local monument and see what comes to mind.

Large stone monument with flags and many flowers at base
Cenotaph in Toronto, Ontario. Toronto Star Photograph Archive.


Monumental Controversies

In addition to acting as gathering places and focal points for community grief, monuments are also contested sites. We're seeing this play out across the world right now, with many statues tied to slavery, anti-abolition and colonialism being reassessed after the killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests. 

There are many such monuments in Canada. For example, the original plaque of one Orillia monument (below) celebrates "the advent into Ontario of the white race". The monument positions the Wendat figures kneeling below the striding figure of French colonist Samuel de Champlain. Not represented is the fact that the Wendat were Champlain’s allies, who saved his life and took him in after he was wounded in battle.

In the early 20th century, British imperialism was thought of as central to Canadian nationalism. This meant that many monuments still standing in Ontario today celebrate a historical narrative that many contemporary viewers consider to be inaccurate and harmful. While these monuments were initially intended as celebrations of these narratives, today they stand as reminders of our Eurocentric history. 

Monument of man in cape towering over other figures below
Champlain monument, Orillia, Ontario. Toronto Star Photograph Archive.


When you’re looking at a monument, consider:

  • How are Indigenous peoples represented?
  • Who built this monument, and for what purpose?
  • Why are some historical narratives privileged over others, in our contemporary retelling of the past?


Large Canadian goose monument overlooking road and landscape
Canadian goose monument, Wawa, Ontario. Toronto Star Photograph Archive.



Monuments are fascinating pieces of public art, and we’d love to hear about some that are meaningful to you in the comments. With everything shut down, there’s no better time to get to know your local mnemonic landscape — digitally, of course.