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Motion to Urge Government to Establish a National Portrait Gallery

Motion to Urge Government to Establish a National Portrait Gallery

Motion to Urge Government to Establish a National Portrait Gallery

Motion to Urge Government to Establish a National Portrait Gallery


Published on 7 February 2017
Hansard and Statements by Senator Serge Joyal

Hon. Serge Joyal:

Honourable senators, I know it’s late, and I will try to summarize my arguments in relation to this proposal.

This proposal, essentially, is to ask the government to realize a project that has been in the mill for the last 20 years, which is a National Portrait Gallery in the former building of the American Embassy, directly in front of Parliament Hill.

Let me remind honourable senator of some historical elements in relation to that building. That building was vacated 20 years ago, when the American government decided that they needed additional space. They built new premises on Sussex Drive in the vicinity of the Chateau Laurier.

The original building was bought by the National Capital Commission and is included in the buildings of the Parliamentary Precinct, but it has stayed vacant for 20 years, not only that building but the two plots of land that stand empty on both sides of the building.

In 1998, the former Senator Grafstein, the late Senator Lynch-Staunton, and the former Senator Meighan and I were walking on the hill and we said, “What a tremendous spot it is for Canadians to benefit from a location that is, in fact, the most prime location in the land, in front of Parliament.” What is a better location to house a portrait gallery?

Senator Lynch-Staunton, who happened to be Vice-Chair of the Executive Committee of the City of Montreal, who I had known through his family, especially his father, was very much involved in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, asked, “Yes, but do we have portraits in Canada to hang there?”

We enquired about that and we got a report from the National Archives of Canada. The National Archives — not the National Gallery, the National Archives of Canada — has been collecting portraits for the last 100 years. They own 20,000 paintings, representing portraits from the 1690s to today, including miniatures, drawings and prints and over 4 million photographs and thousands of caricatures. Can you imagine the amount of artwork that there is there? All that is kept and protected in a vault in a warehouse, a very modern warehouse in Gatineau. But nobody gets to see them. Some of those items have been piled there for a century and more.

When I said that to Senator Lynch-Stauton and Senator Grafstein, we said, “What do we do with that?” We went to see the Prime Minister of the day, Mr. Chrétien, and we said, “Listen, this is a project that is important. It goes across the house in this chamber. It’s not a Liberal project; it’s not a Tory project. It’s a Canadian project because it will help Canadians understand one another, link to one another, to appreciate better the diversity of Canada, to see how, from generation to generation, various groups of explorers, fur traders, farmers, business persons, teachers, professors, Aboriginal peoples, European colonizers, all those peoples that have made Canada from one generation to generation, whose portraits sit in that warehouse, will be available and will be part of a network of exchange all across the land with all those museums in Canada in each and every province.”

As Senator Marshall will know, at Memorial University, they have a collection of portraits that nobody sees, really, because, after a while, when you don’t tell the story of those people, the story is lost, and you lose interest in knowing your history.

So what do we have this year? This year is the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Confederation. What did they do in 1967 to mark the anniversary of Canada, the centennial, with a legacy? I insist on that. We will have, on July 1, a picnic, firecrackers throughout the land. Thousands and thousands of Canadians will celebrate, but, when it is over, when the grass is clean, we will all have a memory of that but we won’t have better instruments to appreciate the diversity of our history and the diversity of the peoples who make Canada.

In 1967, the National Arts Centre was built not far from here. Why? To give an opportunity to all of the Canadian artists to have a place to show off their talent in the capital and then to radiate across the land, to expand and reveal their talents across the land.

In the centennial year, they also built a flame, the Centennial Flame. That didn’t exist before 1967. Each morning, when I drive my car or walk up to Parliament Hill, I see all of the people gathering around the flame, taking their pictures there. This is a legacy of 1967.

Honourable senators may ask: Will Canadians visit the portrait gallery? I checked what happened in Britain, in the United States and in Australia. In Britain, they have a portrait gallery in London. It’s beside the National Gallery. I checked their attendance. I have all the figures of the attendance at the gallery since 1980.

The portrait gallery is the tenth-most visited site in London. They received 2,200,000 visitors in 2015. Do you know how many visitors went to see their Houses of Parliament? I will ask the question to Senator Tkachuk. Less than a million.

In other words, people are more attracted to see various heads and heroes and ordinary citizens that have helped to make the fabric of Britain than to see their members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords debating.

So I feel that we have a prime location in front of Parliament, where buses drop hundreds and hundreds of visitors each month to visit our Parliament, and they would only have to cross Wellington Street to see the many faces of Canadians and immigrants who came to build Canada, the Chinese community, the Italian community, the Greek community, those who sought refuge in Canada through the war, the Armenians. Today Senator Gold mentioned the Jewish people and the role that Canada played in the Holocaust and so on. That will be revealed there, with the portraits of those Canadians.

Honourable senators, this is a project that was announced by the government in 2003. The model was unveiled in 2005. The cost, at that time, was $44 million; $10 million was already engaged in the building of it. The project was stopped in 2006-07 for re-assessment, and the government decided to that a better location for the gallery would be the Encana Tower in Calgary, on the ground floor. The promoter of Encana wanted to have some prestigious tenant, and they offered to house the portrait gallery.

Unfortunately, there was no budget for that. They were only offering the site. The government would have had to build the walls, all the fixtures and everything for operating the gallery, plus the added costs of, on average, $2.5 million a year to move the portraits, each time there was an exhibition, from the warehouse in Gatineau to Calgary. So the project collapsed.

Then the Public Works Department proposed to offer the chance to show the portraits in various cities throughout Canada — Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Vancouver — if those cities would take it upon themselves to build the location. Hence, the same question: Who is going to pay for the building, and who is going to pay for the travel costs of everything?

So the project finally collapsed in 2009. The building has been sitting empty since then, across the street. Each day you pass in front of it, it’s a “ghost building” on one of the prime locations where Canadians could learn about one another.

Honourable senators, I was reading the paper last week when Statistics Canada revealed the diversification of our population in the years to come. To quote the report:

Immigrants and second-generation individuals combined, who represented 38.2% of Canada’s population in 2011, could account for nearly one in two people (between 44.2% and 49.7%) in 2036.

In less than 20 years, Canada’s population will have changed drastically. Who is going to tell the new Canadians who we have been and who we are? Who will tell them how we have built this country and who has been contributing, from the Aboriginal people to the Syrian refugees we welcomed last year? Who will tell them how we have of been approaching our capacity to determine a way of living together to count on the contribution of each and every Canadian?

A portrait gallery is not only testimony to the heroes; a portrait gallery is testimony to ordinary people — people in their daily lives — farmers, businesspeople, workers and the 3,000 nurses who, during the war, helped Canadian soldiers to fight on the battlefields of Europe. That story doesn’t exist. You can’t see it anywhere. The fight that the women had to get the right to vote — not only at the federal level, at the provincial level — is a fight that lasted almost 50 years.

This is what new Canadians have to learn: That this country has been built by the involvement of each and every Canadian. That is what they will see across the street in that building.

Honourable senators, I think there is money. You read the news same way as me. The government had $13 million in unspent money last year from all of the infrastructure and building projects that were not used; they had to return it. We asked that question of the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs today. Of course, there is a special budget for the sesquicentennial celebration — $210 million. Think twice about what we are going to spend $210 million on but we won’t spend 20 per cent of that budget on a legacy that will benefit the future generation. That’s essentially the question that I’m leaving with you with that project.

That’s why I put that proposal on the table today, because we have to think of the legacy that we’re going to leave to Canadians for future generations, generations that will be so diversified and different from what we have been. But they’ll have to know that what they are going to build as a society is on the shoulders of those generations, and that they will have the opportunity to better understand and know.

Honourable senators, again, this motion is not a government motion; it’s not an opposition motion. It’s a motion of the Senate. I’m very happy to count on the support of all of you in support of Senator Black, who has been with me and other senators promoting that with Senator Bovey, a former director of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and with Senator Frum from Toronto, whose family has always been involved in the support of art in Canada. We think that it’s by learning our history that we bind our country together.

There is no better history than the people’s history. A portrait gallery is a people institution. It’s not an institution only for celebrities and stars; it’s a people’s institution. That’s why those figures of attendance in Britain, in Washington where there’s a portrait gallery beside the Smithsonian and the national gallery and in Canberra, Australia — those institutions are so well attended because people recognize themselves in those institutions. Ordinary citizens go there to see figures and real people.

This is why I think we have a very good opportunity now to support that proposal and ask the Minister of Heritage and the government to revive that project that this Senate was the first to promote 20 years ago.

With all of that, senators, I think we could mark the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary with a legacy the likes of which we will all be proud.

Thank you, honourable senators.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

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