Chicken to Keep It “Our” Hill
On July 1, for the first time, I celebrated Canada Day at what should be the epicentre of Canada Days: on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on the lawn right in front of Centre Block. Actually, we went to see the fireworks, but in the hours-long wait there was lots of opportunity to participate in the whole evening program put on by the National Capital Commission. As with the tens of thousands of others around me on the grass of the House of Commons, I went with a heart full of maple-leaf pride and absolutely no cynicism, ready to party and just happy to be there. However, like Dorothy in Emerald City, despite my hopes and my naïveté, having made the trek, it didn’t take long for the curtain to slip on the machinery. And what we saw wasn’t pretty.
I thought I went to Ottawa to celebrate a national event. And although I confess that I don’t think often of our Parliament buildings, when I do, I assume that it’s OUR Ottawa, and OUR houses of parliament, no matter what party we vote for. We may be divided on issues from healthcare to tuition fees. But we are Canadians, from coast to coast to coast. Those buildings, that place in Ottawa, are part of our birthright. It’s why, even thousands of kilometres away in Saskatchewan where I grew up, I studied about people in far off Ottawa: John A Macdonald, and Laurier, about odd little Mackenzie King or stuffy Diefenbaker, and why later, my education in things central Canadian continued with Louis Riel and the Scottish train barons and Mulroney and Trudeau. Our Canadian citizenship is why so many of us wore maple leaf flags criss-crossing Europe or travelling around the world in the 1980s and 90s.
Naturally enough, the flag of which we are proud is associated with that place where our government sits. To come to Ottawa, then, is always a bit of a pilgrimage. And I wasn’t alone. That Canada Day I was proud – but not surprised – to see Canadians of every colour and, apparently, creed, dressed in tank tops and saris, burkas and gay-pride rainbow-banners, speaking a dozen different languages at least, all enjoying the sun and waving their little paper flags. If ever there was a place that sits in the Canadian mind as belonging to them, it surely must be the Houses of Parliament.
How naive. The lights dimmed, and there, in front of the thousands of us gathered in the quadrangle, two giant jumbo-tron video screens came to life. It turned out that our celebration of the nation and of our day was introduced by advertisements, for what seemed to be a national poultry marketers’ group, and for President’s Choice grilled meats.
Tacky? Obviously. But even if you can swallow the poor taste of running ads at such a time (similar to having a “sponsored” knife for your son’s Bris, or communion host wafers stamped with the name of a local eatery), the act of running ads before a national celebration on the most public site in Canada raises all kinds of questions.
Firstly, whose hill is it? Are the Parliament buildings public space, or private space? Symbolism is important in space and ceremony, and never more so than at an event like a national holiday. Rulers have known this from the time of the pyramids and as recently as the Brits floating the Queen down the Thames. Certainly the National Capital Commission must also know this. To run ads seconds before wishing us a happy 145th anniversary of our country is to say, on some level, that it is not our country, but belongs to those who have “sponsored” it: the corporations. And to run corporate ads right in the shadow of the House of Commons is inevitably to beg the question of whose interests are being served by those who work within. Whether or not we were all thinking consciously of this, the message was being communicated.
It is the height of hypocrisy for governments of all stripes to bemoan the loss of interest in voting and the declining rate of participation of young people in what used to be called “civics”, and then run ads in the very centre of what has been called “the country’s heart”. The two facts are connected. Why would a 19 year old youth even want to vote for a government that so clearly indicates that it’s not the vote, it’s the money, that counts?
Then there is the need for what, for argument’s sake, we could call “elevated” space. I have used a number of religious metaphors already in this article – Bris, pilgrimage, communion. In our recognition of how we are governed we human beings also seem to need spaces that are set aside from the ordinary (the original definition of “holy” is in fact to be set apart, or consecrated, to a “higher” use). The sombre Vietnam memorial in Washington would never have a mascot in a fur suit handing out yogourt samples….there would be an immediate and vocal reaction. Government buildings and spaces, at their best, also should be inspirational. The architects of Parliament Hill knew this. That is why the quadrangle (the area bordered by the Houses of Parliament) and the Centennial flame are there.
Granted, we Canadians are more circumspect than many of our neighbours and allies: we don’t have the impressive imperial views of Washington’s Mall and of the Lincoln Memorial. We don’t have an Arc de Triomphe nor a Buckingham Palace. We have always been a bit more bourgeois. But in its own, politely provincial Canadian way, Ottawa’s Capital Hill is still a space that one thinks of as set apart, even elevated (Capital Hill) to the use of democracy. We think of it that way because it was designed that way.
And maybe that’s the word that’s been missing so far: democracy. The centre block of the House of Commons is a place where our elected representatives argue out the policies and practices that determine who we are as a people. Those MPs are there because of us, and for no other reason. They did not buy their way into office. They were elected, in the free and fair elections for which our country is generally known. Democracy means that a whole bunch of us “little people” put our MPs there.
Corporations, by their very nature, of course, are not democratic. Nor should they necessarily be. They are, legally, at least, “incorporated”, that is, individuals. And as legal entities they are big – very big, very powerful, individuals. Is our public space for many of us little people who have voted, or for the select few big ones, who do not? Or to put it another way: the question is whether we should have an elevated space, set apart in recognition of the principles of democracy, or whether by our actions we in fact send a signal that the very centre of our national identity is up for sponsorship (and thus, inevitably, control).
To my mind it’s actually good news that the corporate sponsorship of our country’s 145th birthday in Ottawa was so clumsily handled, since it means that the practice has not yet achieved the sheen of a policy that is entrenched. I have nothing against either chicken farmers or grilled meats from Loblaws. It is the National Capital Commission (or those that underfund them) that need to answer for this. The “Occupy” movement, so strong in 2011, seems to be foundering in 2012. But so long as we seem so willing to give up symbols of our nation to interests beyond and against our national, democratic control, there will be backlash from those who are being told, on every screen, that their most cherished institutions and events are being taken away from them.