Tuesday, 8 December 2020

The Offending Arch

One evening during the winter of 1938-39 Edwin C. Guillet, a noted Canadian historian, received a strange telephone call. It was from the Prime Minister of Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie King. Mr. King was upset. In fact, his agitation bordered on anger. He had pondered the problem for several months and felt he needed to share it with someone. Who better than with his historian friend, Guillet.  The Prime Minister explained that the previous summer he had participated in an event of historic importance to the country and of particular personal pleasure and pride to himself. He had unveiled an arch - the Clifton Gate Memorial Arch at Niagara Falls.

The memorial arch was the brainchild of T. B. McQuesten, Chairman of the Niagara Parks Commission. It was to commemorate the inception of responsible government following the rebellion of 1837. He had an architect prepare the design, which bore the Egyptian motif with a tapered top. The cement core had been cast and was awaiting the application of limestone panels which were to contain various bas relief drawings and inscriptions commemorating the rebellion and, in particular, the person of William Lyon Mackenzie.

By April 1938 construction had progressed to the point where a date could be set for the unveiling of the monument and two dates in June were suggested to King. While the Prime Minister was normally hesitant about accepting out-of-town engagements, King leapt at the chance to officiate on this occasion. ‘I need hardly say that I am more than appreciative of the invitation thus extended, and feel much honoured by it as well. In all probability our Parliament will prorogue sometime between the middle and end of June. Ordinarily I would feel that for this reason, I should not make any engagements for that fortnight, as my presence in the concluding days of the Session is more imperative than at any other time. However, I should not wish to miss an association with the unveiling of the Memorial Arch, and the invitation extended by Mr. McQuestion and Members of the Board to me to unveil the Memorial Arch causes me to feel that I might well be justified in being absent for at least the Saturday on which the ceremony is to take place.’ In his diary King noted, ‘accepted today an invitation to unveil the memorial arch at Niagara last weekend in June - a significant fulfilment of God’s Holy will.’

It was announced that the completed arch was meant to serve a dual purpose. First, the Arch was intended to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of responsible government in Canada by honouring ‘the constancy, courage, faith and right thinking of the humble and unremembered folk’ who had pioneered and settled the country and to remind the present generation of the pride they should have in their nation’s history. Secondly, the Arch was constructed to provide an impressive entrance to Queen Victoria Park for visitors entering Canada over the Upper Steel Arch Bridge which was known locally as the Falls View Bridge.’

However, nature nullified the latter purpose, for on Thursday, January 27th, 1938 a massive movement of ice down the river unceremoniously relocated the bridge’s abutments, necessitating the replacement of the Falls View Bridge. The new structure named the Rainbow Bridge was eventually constructed some distance north of the both the old bridge and the Arch.

The site of Mr. King’s dedication ceremonies was Oakes Garden Theatre, which had been formally opened itself the previous September when the adjoining River Road had also been widened. The unveiling of the Arch was meant to mark the completion of the beautification of an area which had been designated by an act of the Legislature in 1885 ‘for the preservation of the Niagara scenery about the Niagara Falls.’ The Prime Minister declared that without a doubt this location where beauty and history were perfectly combined, was the most beautiful spot in the world. On Saturday, June 18th, seven thousand citizens looked on in anxious anticipation as the Prime Minister rose to unveil the Arch, which for the occasion was covered in red, white and blue bunting. Mr. King stepped forward and pushed a small electric switch. Dramatically the bunting fell away disclosing the Memorial Arch. Mackenzie King, who it must be admitted reluctantly, was more famous for dull than for daring speeches was said to have outdone himself at the event. According to a newspaper report of the unveiling, King delivered to the assembled throng an ‘inspiring message.’  The Arch, King said, was more than a memorial to ‘a few rebels,’ for the rebellion was ‘a mere incident in the history of Canada.’ Rather ‘the Arch was a symbol of triumph’ epitomizing ‘the conquest of ideas and ideals. As I look at the Arch, it seems to me one can see the great pilgrimage of men and women going back three centuries who have left us the country we have today.’

Facing the Falls on the south side of the Arch above the opening of the Arch, verse three of the 93rd Psalm was inscribed: ‘The floods have lifted up, O Lord, the floods have lifted up their voice.’ The reference, of course, was to the nearby cascading waters thundering in the background. Inside the Arch there were various sculptural panels, each depicting scenes from the history of Canada. Father Hennepin was there, along with Lasalle and his 45-ton, 5-gun barque, the Griffin. Native people were there, too, described by the Prime Minister as ‘primitive sons for whom we have not done full justice.’ The Prime Minister’s grandfather - the Little Rebel, William Lyon Mackenzie - was there too, depicted presenting his 7th Report to the House of Assembly. There was a War of 1812 panel on which a soldier, a Native warrior, and an armed seaman were portrayed, along with Sir James Yeo’s flagship, the St. Lawrence. Included also was a pioneer with a gun - perhaps he was a rebel - along with a settler’s family in an ox-cart travelling along a corduroy road.

Below the panels was this inscription:

‘This Memorial was erected to honour the memory of the men and women in this land throughout their generations, who braved the wilderness, maintained the settlements, performed the common tasks, without praise or glory and were the pioneers of political freedom and a system of responsible government which became the cornerstone of the British Commonwealth of Nations.’ 

As the Prime Minister scrutinized the panels, his critical eye was attracted to something to which he took immediate exception. It is not known whether he brought his concerns to the attention of the Commission Chairman, but it is known that he fretted about the matter for many months before deciding to voice his concerns to Guillet.  On one of the panels thirty-two names had been inscribed. There were the names of men who had been executed following the rebellion of 1837. The list included Samuel Lount, Peter Matthews, and Joshua Gilliam Doan, who, it was said, ‘sprang into eternity without a struggle’ when the trap-door was sprung. King’s consternation was caused by the presence on the panels of American interlopers, for among the list of revered Canadian Patriots, King’s critical eye caught the names of several Americans, men who were members of an organization called The Brotherhood of Hunters. This semi-secret sect, which was spawned during the days of the Rebellions of Upper and Lower Canada, was comprised largely of opportunistic Yankees who said they’d help then hijacked the Patriot cause. They attempted to turn a local fight for greater freedom into a rerun of their own revolution. Mackenzie King said these Americans had no more right to be on the panels with our patriots than members of the Brotherhood of Fenians, a group of disgruntled Irish-Americans who had also sought to free Canadians from the dark tyranny of British oppression. They, too, had invaded Canada and were likewise driven back across the border. The Brotherhood of Hunters, a semi-military society of mystic oaths, secret signs and offices of rank was committed to the conquest of Canada. Leaders of the organization had even held a convention in Cleveland in September, 1838 and in anticipation of their successful assaults on the British colony had set up a constitution for the ‘Republic of Upper Canada.’

The Brotherhood quickly transformed itself from a source of assistance into a cause for concern. Its members became motivated by dreams of manifest destiny, based, said one historian, on their sole political doctrine: ‘We own the continent.’ Later the national dreams of many of the Hunters degenerated into nothing more than hunger for frontier land, profit and power. Thoughts of liberty gave way to lust for loot as more and more of the ruffian raiders crossed the porous border intent only on making money. Their isolated incursions into Canada became simply furtive acts of criminality.  Little wonder that Mackenzie King and historian Guillet strongly objected to the presence on the panels of the names of American raiders. Their inclusion detracted completely from the noble nature of the Canadian rebellions, and the ultimate accomplishments of the Canadian patriots. Guillet readily agreed to support the Prime Minister’s objections and he later criticized their presence publicly in an article in a national magazine. It was all to no avail, however, for as Guillet subsequently bemoaned, ‘the inscription has not been altered.’

In Fact, nothing was done until some twenty-eight years later during, ironically, Canada’s Centennial Year, when a decision was made which resolved the problem. The drastic solution resulted in the baby being thrown out with the bath water, for away went the offending names, but away, too, went the Arch. The whole structure was destroyed. The Commission explained that because of the increasing growth of traffic on River Road, the offending Arch had become more hazardous than historic. Traffic was being obstructed and it had to go.  After most of the tourists had left town sometime during the latter part of 1967-68, the Arch was demolished. Pieces of it were scattered far and wide, the medallions containing the vessels the Griffin and the St. Lawrence ending up aground on the corner of Front and Jarvis Streets in Toronto. It is not known what happened to the rest. The Prime Minister’s conundrum was finally resolved. But at what cost? There are some who believe that Mackenzie King might have had real reservations about razing the Arch. His solution? Demolition if necessary, but not necessarily demolition.

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