Winnipeg Cenotaph controversy — women’s club wanted a permanent memorial to the fallen

by Bruce Cherney (part 1)

“Winnipeg has not forgotten. Winnipeg will never forget,” claimed the Manitoba Free Press, the day after the province’s new cenotaph  was unveiled by Manitoba Lieutenant-Governor T.A. Burrows on Armistice Day 1928 before a throng of over 15,000 people. The new cenotaph on the “Mall” honoured “our citizens who gave their lives in loyal and noble service in the World War 1914-18.” 

“I unveil this cenotaph in ever grateful memory of our fellow-citizens who gave their lives for King and Country in the World War,” proclaimed the lieutenant-governor. When Burrows completed the brief ceremony, a brisk wind swept across the city, chilling those gathered to observe the ceremony, although the newspaper reported the discomfort was not enough to distract the crowd from the true intent of the observance.

At 11 o’clock, the Free Press whistle blew, and men “hastily bared their heads; soldiers stood at attention; traffic halted — there was silence for two minutes, a silence that said much more than could any speech.”

While Winnipeg didn’t forget the soldiers who fell during the Great War, most undoubtedly wanted to relegate to the dusty pages of some forgotten history book the controversy surrounding the establishment of the cenotaph.

In hindsight, the controversy defies modern sensibilities, and could be considered bordering on the comic opera — some Canadian newspapers of the era treated it as such — if it wasn’t so contrary to the values Canadians now cherish, which were nurtured by the very soldiers the cenotaph honours, whose sacrifices were made in the name of peace and freedom. In the context of the time, it can be explained, although the events contributing to the controversy appear illogical in today’s Canada. 

At the time, Canadian newspapers criticized Winnipeggers for instigating the controversy by refusing to accept the winning cenotaph design of a naturalized citizen who was born in Germany.

The same xenophobia that led to the renaming of Berlin, Ontario, was the source of the Winnipeg cenotaph controversy. In the Ontario community, the fact that most of the original settlers were not from Germany, but were Mennonites from Pennsylvania, didn’t matter, as their pacifism resulting from their religious faith only added to the furor when recruitment for a local battalion faltered.

In 1916, when news arrived that Lord Horatio Kitchener, Britain’s secretary of state for war, drowned when the HMS Hampshire was sunk by a mine off the Orkney Islands, Kitchener’s name was offered as a replacement for Berlin in a referendum.

Citizens who supported retaining Berlin were regarded by those who wanted  the change as unpatriotic and enemy sympathizers. Riots and intimidation occurred in the months leading up to the May 1916 referendum. The intimidation was successful, as most in the community who would have voted against the change stayed home when the vote was held. Only 892 people out of a population of over 15,000 showed up at the polls. 

A petition of 2,000 names was sent to Queen's Park, the site of Ontario’s legislative assembly in Toronto, to try to stop the change, but they were turned down and Berlin became Kitchener.

At the end of the First World War — the so-called “War to End All Wars” — one of the first tasks confronting grateful Canadians was how to honour fellow citizens who had fallen in battle. Invariably, the solution was to erect a cenotaph as representative of each community’s citizen soldiers.

The first attempt in Winnipeg was by the Women’s Canadian Club, who erected a cenotaph that was referred to in 1920 as a “temporary” tribute on the steps in front of the Bank of Montreal at the corner of Portage and Main.

“But impressive as these circumstances will be, and good as will be the period of reflection, the great effort of the club is directed towards giving not occasional, but perpetual reminder to this city of the mighty effort of our generation,” according to an article written by Alison Craig in the June 12,1920, Free Press.

The vision was for the temporary cement cenotaph erected in 1920 to be eventually replaced by a permanent one of native stone or marble. Following the dedication of the temporary memorial on June 13, the women’s club promised they could raise a permanent cenotaph within two years provided Winnipeggers were willing to contribute $1 each “toward the large and important undertaking.”

“Memorials to the hero dead convey not regret as of lives wasted nor for work which the dead might have done in the land of the living,” said an April 20, 1920, editorial in the Free Press, which supported a cenotaph to “our soldier dead. Their great work is done  and its memory remains not a subject for pity but for gratitude; not as a subject for remorse; but as an incentive to live up to the measure of the nobility of man.”

As early as 1919, plans had been discussed for the creation of a “Victory Memorial Mall,” running from Portage Avenue to the new Manitoba Legislative Building, which was then still under construction but completed a year later. The Mall, which became Memorial Boulevard, was slated to be 132-feet wide, extending from Portage to Broadway and was considered as a potential site for the new cenotaph.

Yet, the Mall would not become a reality until years later. In the meantime, the temporary cenotaph was the visible reminder of the sacrifices made during the Great War. In 1922, Winnipeggers were still discussing the possibility of a permanent memorial.

On Decoration Day in May and Armistice Day in November (now Remembrance Day), flowers and wreaths were laid at the temporary cenotaph. On November 11, 1923, Winnipeggers were still honouring the fallen at the women’s club monument, but its days were numbered. The temporary cenotaph was permanently dismantled on November 26, 1923.

“We hoped the city  would do something to make the cenotaph permanent,” said Mrs. R.F. McWilliams, president of the Woman’s Canadian Club, as the cenotaph was being dismantled. “You see, the site for the monument was lent to us for a period of two years by the Bank of Montreal, and they have already very kindly extended the period more than a year and a half. Now they are going to put up a memorial to their own soldier dead and the cenotaph must come down ...

“Only a united movement by the people of Winnipeg could have made the monument permanent, and that was never made. Perhaps now they have the importance of the matter impressed upon them, and will take some action toward the building of a permanent memorial for Winnipeg’s soldier dead.”

On December 5, 1923, Bank of Montreal Winnipeg branch manager A.F.D. McGachen unveiled the bronze statue of a soldier erected to commemorate the 231 bank employees from across Canada who died in the conflict.

American sculptor James E. Farmer had been commissioned by the Bank of Montreal to create two statues. One was the allegorical figure of “Victory” erected at its head office in Montreal,  while the  second was the bronze statue of a soldier erected on the steps of the bank’s branch office in Winnipeg.

While McGachen said the new statue to himself “typifies the heroic spirit which actuated all the soldiers of Western Canada,” it could not fill the void left by the Women’s Canadian Club cenotaph.

The removal of the temporary memorial finally instilled in city council the need for action. A cenotaph committee was appointed comprised of Aldermen J.A. McKerchar, W.B. Simpson. E.T. Leach and A.H. Pulford, as well as Mayor Seymour Farmer. The committee was charged with contacting veterans organizations, Canadian clubs and other interested organizations to determine their wishes for a cenotaph and then report back to the finance committee with their findings. At the time, council feared there would be a wide divergence in opinion as to the most suitable site for the cenotaph, which turned out to be the case.

At a December 23, 1923, special meeting, the committee presented a number of potential sites for the cenotaph.

“Practically every alderman had a different suggestion for (the) location of the cenotaph,” reported the Free Press, “the city hall square and the corner of Portage and Main receiving the greater support.”

Mayor Farmer warned that until the committee came up with specific suggestions, confusion would spread among Winnipeggers.

“Let us review the possible sites and get a concrete opinion from council as a whole,” said the mayor, “so that we can go to an open meeting with a definite offer of what the city is prepared to do either in the way of donating a site, which we will choose, or of giving  a grant. If there is objection to one specific site let us at least eliminate the unsuitable ones and give alternatives of three or four which we will designate.”

The mayor felt the site should be donated by the city and local organizations take up the fund-raising effort for the new cenotaph.

The sites under consideration included Portage and Main, city hall square, between the streetcar tracks on Main Street just south of William Avenue, in front of the Winnipeg General Hospital, and near the Fort Garry Gateway. The committee eventually eliminated every proposed site after consultation with city departments, settling on city hall square, behind the 1885 Northwest Rebellion monument.

“The square is the centre of the city and will always remain the real centre even though Portage and Main may be the traffic centre,” said Alderman Davidson. “The monument if placed inside the square would be on the main street and yet be far enough out of the stream of traffic or dust and noise. Further it is ideal for public demonstrations as the four streets could accommodate crowds without disruption to traffic, and the city hall steps would make an admirable dais.”

It took months before the committee presented its proposal to a meeting with the various veterans’ associations and Canadian clubs. While committee chairman Alderman McKerchar took the blame for the city’s inaction, in the early spring of 1924, he promised a public meeting would be called within two weeks.

Twenty-three organizations attended the May 1 public meeting, giving their support to the establishment of a permanent cenotaph. When the city’s committee report was read at the meeting, 10 potential locations were given. Besides the locations already mentioned, other sites included St. James Park at the south side of Portage between Canora and Home streets; on the legislative grounds; Grace Church property at the triangle of the intersection of  Smith Street and Notre Dame Avenue; property at the corner of Assiniboine Avenue and Kennedy Street; and vacant property on the east side of Main Street between Notre Dame Avenue East and Water Avenue.

The city committee recommended the corner of Portage and Main or the site that had been set aside by the provincial government on the legislative grounds.

E.J. Tarr, the chairman of the Canadian Club cenotaph committee, said the site was not as important as the commencement of fund raising.

P.G. Ramer, president of the Great War Veterans’ Association, favoured the Portage and Main site.

The real outcome of the meeting was that ex-mayor Richard "Dick" Deans Waugh was made the “permanent” chairman of the “permanent” cenotaph committee, while Magnus Peterson was made the “permanent” secretary-treasurer. Waugh was given a list of those attending the meeting willing to serve on the new committee. For its time, the committee was quite egalitarian by including quite a few women in its ranks, which was fitting due to the early efforts made by Winnipeg women in laying the groundwork for a cenotaph.

By the middle of May, the newly-named Winnipeg War Memorial committee had decided the cenotaph should be erected on the north side of the legislative grounds as it would represent all Manitobans killed during the Great War. At the same time, it was hoped that the committee’s decision would cause the province to act more quickly in helping to establish a memorial mall from Portage Avenue to the legislative grounds.

In August 1925, city council passed two bylaws signalling its intention to go ahead with the plan for the mall under the name Memorial Boulevard. Council approved the Leo Wards plan, which provided for a wide boulevard that expanded the section of Colony Street running south from Portage Avenue to Broadway and the legislative grounds. 

When the plan for Memorial Boulevard was announced, Alex Macdonald donated all his property in the area in order to make the extension possible. The provincial government also announced it was handing over its York Avenue land for Memorial Boulevard from Kennedy Street through to Colony Street and would cover the cost of paving this portion of the extension.

Another bylaw was for the expropriation of land needed to widen Memorial Boulevard. The estimated cost of the plan was $132,000, with four-sevenths covered by ratepayers in the immediate area and three-sevenths from the city-at-large — $2.01 on each $1,000 of assessment, according to the city’s calculations. 

As a result of the city’s announcement and to the delight of city council, the Hudson’s Bay Company announced it would construct a new department store on land it owned alongside Memorial Boulevard when the upgrade was completed.

The committee established a War Memorial Fund. By the end of June, its 1,000 volunteer canvassers were well on their way toward collecting the $25,000 needed to erect the cenotaph.

The next step for the committee was to select one of 47 designs submitted for the cenotaph. After a two-day study of the designs, the committee announced on December 23, 1925, that the winning entry was submitted by Toronto sculptor Emanuel Otto Hahn.

(Next week: part 2)