It’s time for a national portrait gallery

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If one picture is worth a thousand words, a national portrait gallery trumps a television script any day.


First published in The Hill Times on Monday, April 10, 2017.


OTTAWA—If one picture is worth a thousand words, a national portrait gallery trumps a television script any day.

As Canada moves through the celebration of our 150th birthday, the government is swamped with ideas for the celebration of our shared story.

History is seen through different eyes by different regions of the country. Throw in language polemics, and you have a potentially incendiary mix.

Such was the reaction to the first couple of episodes of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s television series entitled: The Story of Us.

The first episode provoked a quick response from Atlantic Canada, disputing the show’s claim that the first French settlement on the continent was in Quebec City in 1608.

The Acadians, who established a permanent presence at Port-Royal three years earlier, were particularly aggrieved, and Nova Scotia’s premier is demanding a rewrite of the miniseries.

In response to critics, CBC said that 75 historians were consulted on the project.

Producers also endured the challenge of trying to engage a modern audience, which necessitates some poetic licence.

The narrative of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham was recounted by none other than world-famous extreme fighter Georges St-Pierre.

After all, history has to be interesting enough for the millennial viewer to watch.

That might mean some liberties are taken with literal interpretation of the facts surrounding the formation of Canada.

Which leads me to the question of pictures.
Another “Big Picture” proposal which has been under consideration for the 150th birthday party is the National Portrait Gallery.

Much work on the concept started two decades ago, when then Liberal Senator Jerry Grafstein spearheaded a unique transformation for the soon-to-be-vacated American Embassy directly across from Parliament Hill.

U.S. president Bill Clinton opened the new American Embassy on Sussex Drive back in 1999. That relocation offered the possibility of a new vocation for the beautiful, Beaux-Arts edifice ideally located steps from the Parliamentary Precinct.

The portrait gallery project took the capital by storm and had unanimous support from all sides.

Capital construction began under Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government, which viewed the gallery as an opportunity to tell Canada’s story through pictures, drawing from the thousands of photographs and portraitures.

Thousands of portraits and pictures currently warehoused in Library and Archives Canada speak for themselves. They do not require modern interpretation by extreme fighters or anyone else. Curatorial work on exhibits have already been started, and the thousands of items hidden away could finally get their day in the sun.

More than 11 million dollars was spent, preparing for the gallery transformation when the government of prime minister Stephen Harper cancelled the project back in 2008. Many believed that the gallery would be resuscitated through the influence of senior cabinet minister and Ottawa heavyweight John Baird.

But that was not to be. For a decade, the Wellington Street site languished in obscurity, leaving visitors wondering what was happening with the forlorn frontage that appeared to be abandoned.

A portrait speaks volumes. How many millions of words have been written to explore the enigmatic story of Mona Lisa? And yet the simplest way of making up your own mind is by simply viewing the painting at the Louvre in Paris.

While the controversy surrounding modern interpretation of history through television series will, no doubt, continue, the opportunity is ripe to rejuvenate the gallery.

Grafstein has even passed the torch to Senator Serge Joyal, who is championing the initiative.

While other Senators are parsing grammar in an effort to derail the modernization of Canada’s national anthem, Joyal has been quietly working his extensive network in support of a relaunch for the National Portrait Gallery.

Somewhat of an amateur historian himself, Joyal began effectively lobbying the government some time ago, with the intention to celebrating the 150th through a permanent legacy showcasing the country’s stories.

The gallery project includes a significant online presence and a proposal for traveling exhibitions, which would mean that Canadians across the country could have a chance to view firsthand, the portraits of explorers like Samuel de Champlain and early First Nation leaders.

A television series, no matter how much it works to reflect reality, is a vehicle intended for entertainment. Liberties are taken with content, style and substance.

No such editorial licence is granted to pictures and portraits. They are what they are, and we each interpret them, based on our own vision of the country and the world.

A National Portrait Gallery would be a fitting, and less controversial way of telling The Story of Us.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.