Until recently, Canada was the only Allied nation without a national monument to the Holocaust.
But all that changed on Thursday, when, following an inauguration by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canada’s National Holocaust Monument was opened to the public in Ottawa.
Sited next to the Canadian War Museum, the striking new monument was designed by American architect Daniel Libeskind—himself the son of Holocaust survivors and also architect of the Jewish Museum in Berlin.
According to Canada’s National Capital Commission, this monument has a very clear set of purposes: “The Holocaust was the mass extermination of over six million Jews and countless other victims, and one of the darkest chapters in human history. The monument serves to honour the victims and survivors of the Holocaust, and the important lessons it so painfully taught us. It also ensures that the lessons of the Holocaust, as well as the incredible contribution Holocaust survivors made to Canada, remain within the national consciousness for generations to come.”
Yet some may still have questions about this important new monument. Here are six such questions, and some answers.
1. Canada has small Holocaust memorials scattered in cities throughout the nation. Why and how was this large, national one developed?
“There were small ones, but there was no national monument” until now, says Dov Goldstein of Lord Cultural Resources, who acted as project manager on the monument. “There was nothing that spoke nationally about the Holocaust.”
Goldstein recalls that the idea of a national Holocaust monument for Canada was actually put forward by a university student named Laura Grossman roughly a decade ago.
Then, in 2009, the idea of a national Holocaust monument was introduced as a private member’s bill in Parliament by Conservative MP Tim Uppal. It received Royal Assent in 2011, and fundraising began.
According to Goldstein, funds for the monument were roughly “half and half” private and public—legally, all proponents of national monuments “are responsible for the funding of their commemorative monument,” states policy on the issue.
In 2013, Lord Cultural responded to a request for proposals for the monument project, and assembled a multidisciplinary team: New York architect Daniel Libeskind, Quebec landscape architect Claude Cormier, Toronto photographer Edward Burtynsky, and University of Toronto Holocaust historian Doris Bergen. Their proposal won in 2014.
The NCC is the builder and now the steward of the monument, responsible for its maintenance and preservation. The Department of Canadian Heritage of the Government of Canada is responsible for the interpretation elements of the monument.
2. What are the photographic images on the monument?
The six photos that have been enlarged and painted onto the concrete walls of the National Holocaust Monument are by Toronto photographer Edward Burtynsky. They depict scenes from Treblinka, Auschwitz, Berlin, Mauthausen, Theresienstadt and Warsaw.
“It was not until I visited the actual sites: the camps, monuments, and killing fields—in order to generate imagery for the architecture of the monument—that the full impact of what those places must have been like and what they still represent, hit me,” says Burtynsky in a statement.
“Not only were there victims at these terrible places, but there were also survivors. This project has become as much a testament to the indomitable human spirit as it is a memorial to those who perished,” Burtynsky continues. “For the sake of future generations we must continue to acknowledge those critical moments in history that stand as examples of turbulent, questionable political affairs and their devastating effect on human lives.”
Burtynsky, who is of Ukrainian Canadian descent, also says that working on these photographs inspired him to rekindle his own personal associations with Eastern European culture.
3. What is the significance of the monument’s shapes and forms?
According to the monument’s project manager, Lord Cultural’s Dov Goldstein, the “abstracted series of triangle forms” that make up Canada’s National Holocaust Monument recall several ways that victims of the Holocaust were marked by the Nazis.
As Daniel Libeskind has stated, “The star remains the visual symbol of the holocaust—a symbol that millions of Jews were forced to wear by the Nazis to identify them as Jews, exclude them from humanity, and mark them for annihilation.”
Yet the star in this monument is fractured and exploded into six separate triangle forms—a choice that not only evokes the destruction wrought by the Holocaust, but also suggests the triangular shapes that other oppressed groups were marked by. For instance, male homosexuals were marked with pink triangles, and the disabled by black triangles. (A full list of the triangle badges is available on Wikipedia.)
“It was important that the monument tell the inclusive story of the Holocaust,” Liebeskind has stated, “which included homosexuals, Roma and Sinti, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and political and religious prisoners”—all of whom were marked with triangle badges by the Nazis.
The space at the centre of the triangles/star can also be used as “a large gathering space for ceremonies,” Liebeskind has noted.
Goldstein also says that it was important the monument work against the traditional monolith form.
“You look at something like a statue a monolith, and you walk away,” says Goldstein. “This is an immersive experience—you actually descend below into the monument.”
4. What does the monument leave out about Canada’s legacy around the Holocaust?
In 1939, the MS St. Louis—a ship bearing some 900 German Jews seeking asylum—was rejected from docking in Cuba, and likewise the United States.
Then, after a decision from Canadian immigration branch director Frederick Blair, the Jewish refugees were also refused permission to dock in Halifax. The boat ended up going back to Europe, where hundreds of the passengers died.
While the new National Holocaust Monument is intended to honour all victims and survivors of the Holocaust, it does not mention the MS St. Louis incident explicitly.
Some had hoped that an official federal-government apology for Canada’s actions towards the MS St. Louis would at least be delivered by Prime Minister Trudeau during the recent National Holocaust Monument inauguration, the Canadian Press reports.
But while Trudeau did acknowledge the incident, he did so only in passing, stating, “May this monument remind us to always open our arms and our hearts to those in need.”
According to the Canadian Press, the Trudeau government is working on an official apology for the MS St. Louis in future, though no date has been set yet.
There is also little in the monument acknowledges the fact that thousands of Holocaust survivors actually live in poverty at the moment in Canada.
A recent Toronto Star report found that “of roughly 17,000 Holocaust survivors living in Canada, about one-quarter live in poverty.” And “survivors are twice as likely as other Canadian seniors to be poor, according to a 2016 study.” (Notably, some of the donors towards the National Holocaust Monument, like the Azrieli Foundation, do fund specific programs for Holocaust survivors living in poverty as well.)
5. What does it mean to inaugurate a Holocaust monument in a year that has seen a surge in public visibility of the neo-Nazi movement in Canada, the United States and elsewhere?
When asked about what it means to him to be helping create a national Holocaust monument in the same year as events like Charlottesville—and the same week as a neo-Nazi march was being planned in Peterborough—Dov Goldstein of Lord Cultural says such incidents have always been around.
“It’s not a resurgence,” Dov Goldstein of Lord Cultural says of recent neo-Nazi activity in North America. “It has never gone away, unfortunately. It rears its ugly head a bit more prominently now, but racism and anti-Semitism have never gone away. It’s part of our society, unfortunately.”
6. What other national monuments does Canada still lack in terms of honouring victims of genocide?
The Holocaust is one of five genocides officially recognized by the government of Canada. The others are Rwanda, Srebenica, Armenia and the Holodomor.
While there are memorials to some of these other four genocides in various cities across Canada, none yet has a national monument to honour victims.
And following the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, many Canadians are more aware than ever of the ways that Canada’s own history is entwined with official government efforts to exterminate First Nations people.
The TRC report called for more monuments to residential school victims and survivors across Canada. There is one smaller monument of this kind in Winnipeg, but an Ottawa Citizen article noted in July that no such national monument appears to yet be in the works.
This article was updated on October 5, 2017, with a more current website statement from the National Capital Commission, and additional information about which government departments are responsible for maintenance and interpretation of the monument.