I spent this past Easter Monday wandering around downtown Ottawa, getting a few pictures for next Monday’s deconstruction post. Like I mentioned before, I’m a huge history geek. I love poking around historical buildings and monuments and Ottawa’s been blessed with quite a few good ones within a fairly small area (I’ll introduce a few of them to you next Monday).
One of these locations is D’Arcy McGee’s Pub on Sparks St, where I stopped in for a quick pint and to jot down the notes for the post you’re reading now. D’Arcy’s a location with a fair bit of history, which was part of the reason I stopped there. Go figure, the hostess seated me in one of the side rooms that has a beautiful view of the National War Memorial with the Chateau Laurier in the background. It’s one of the things I guess I share with Douglas Bland, I can be suckered in for blatant symbolism too.
We’ll talk about the Memorial, the Chateau and the Pub next Monday, but for now I want to zero in on something a bit more obscure. As part of my tourist walk, I wandered up onto Parliament Hill. It was a beautiful day for it. Not too cold, and the sun broke through the clouds right around the time I arrived. Even the obnoxious Pro-Life demonstrators were taking the day off. I was busy looking for a good angle to get a pic of the Langevin Block (home of the PMO; Prime Minister’s Office) that I walked right past it the first time, and had to double back when inspiration struck.
This dramatic looking character is Sir Galahad-as in the same one from Camelot-and he’s standing right at the centre of the grounds, at the southern foot of Parliament Hill. If you’re looking at him head on then the Centre Block and the Peace Tower are directly behind him, as though he just marched right out of Parliament and he’s just exited the House of Commons to sort shit out, and if you ain’t gonna follow, he ain’t gonna care.
Thing is, it’s not entirely clear what the statue’s there for. There’s a plaque, and an inscription in the stone he’s standing on, but even that doesn’t help so much:
So here’s the actual story:
On the 6th of December of 1901, the Governor General of Canada, the Earl of Minto saw the Ottawa River had frozen over with this perfectly smooth sheet of ice that was so clear, you could see right through it. Naturally, he figured the thing to do was have a skating party by his residence and invited various prominent people of Ottawa to attend. Now most of us who’ve been out on frozen water know that if it’s thin enough to see through, it’s probably not going to hold your weight. Despite this, the party went on for a while without anything happening.
Thing is, you can’t get lucky forever. The ice broke, a young woman named Bessie Blair and a man named Alex Creelman fell through. Creelman got swept away under the ice, but through a freak bit of luck he found another thin patch of ice where he was able to break through and get rescued. Bessie Blair meanwhile, was trying to stay afloat and find something to hold onto amidst the broken ice and freezing water.
Henry Albert Harper (Bert Harper) was an up and coming young journalist and civil servant who, in true Victorian fashion, drew inspiration for his life from the example of Arthurian legends of the Knights of the Round Table. Specifically, the poetic depictions of Arthurian legends popularized by Lord Tennyson. Especially Sir Galahad. Just like a kid today might have a poster of Marvel’s Black Panther on their bedroom wall, Bert Harper had a print of Sir Galahad hanging over his bed in the apartments he shared with his good friend and fellow journalist William.
While other onlookers tried to knot together a rope of scarfs and crawl out to help Bessie, Bert Harper ran out onto the ice and dove into the water, swimming to her side and helping to keep afloat as she grew weaker from the cold. An incredible display of courage and self-sacrifice, it would not be enough to save either Bessie or himself, and both eventually succumbed to the cold and drowned before the rescue party could reach them.
According to stories that later built up around the event, when the onlookers and rescuers shouted at ‘Bert not to jump in, he answered them back by quoting Sir Galahad from Tennyson’s poems: “If I lose myself, I save myself!” Although at the time witnesses at the time said it was something more like “What else can I do?” Given the circumstances, I think it’s fair to grant him the more dramatic last words.
So a dramatic and tragic story. Two young people lost in the prime of their lives, one of them actually sacrificing himself in an attempt to rescue the other. But why the statue? More than that, why this statue in this prominent location? Well, that comes down to Bert’s roommate and editor, who at that time of his death was one of the many party-goers trying to crawl out to the pair as they struggled to stay afloat.
William’s full name was William Lyon McKenzie-King, and in his own words he loved Bert as he would a father or a brother. He would enter politics a few years later, get elected to Parliament, and a decade after that he would become our longest-serving Prime Minister. You can find his statue just around the corner of the East Block, near the statue of Queen Elizabeth II. His first speech in the House of Commons would commemorate his friend’s courage, and the statue was his tribute to these lives cut short.
Right now the Statue is on a sidewalk next to a traffic light and a crosswalk. There’s a bus stop a few meters away and while Heritage Canada and the City do their best to keep the memory alive, there’s probably a lot of people who walk past the memorial every day without looking twice. Of those who stop to look, not many will fully grasp what this statue meant to the man who had it built.
So this leaves us with what’s usually the big question for historians: How significant was this moment? McKenzie-King was definitely important to the country, and Bert Harper was important to him, so maybe a lot? But then this monument was built at the start of what would be a long and momentous political career. Nine years after its unveiling, Canada would be plunged into what was then known as ‘The Great War.’ Two years after that, the Centre Block would be gutted by fire. The Great War would be three years gone by the time MacKenzie-King would first become PM and he would serve on and off again for twenty one years. So maybe not so much?
This is why study is important for understanding history, and this is where Bland and I have to diverge. Human beings are complex, and the way we interact even more so. This is why the mostly likely answer to any given question about human nature is going to be a frustrating ‘maybe?’ instead of a hard yes or no. Summarizing the entirety of a human being with a few broad strokes and stereotypes passes over the hidden depths where we can find our hardest maybes yet.
Some of the stuff in Uprising is straight up wrong. But a lot of other stuff is in that hidden depths region, and I’m not going to have definitive yes or no answers. But I got a lot of maybes, and the more I read, the more maybes I find. It’s like a statue on a sidewalk that you’ve walked past a hundred times without looking: Once you’ve met actually met him, Sir Galahad’s impossible to ignore.
***All photos by author.***
 I don’t know what church these cranks attend, but they work in shifts and they park themselves right next to the Centennial Flame and on most days there’s no escaping them.
 It was really common in the Victorian era to include classical and Arthurian themes in popular works of art, and until I started reading up on this particular one I figured the same thing was at work here. Learning about Bert Harper’s affinity for Sir Galahad really casts the entire monument in a different light. This is what prompted my comparison Marvel’s Black Panther, and I do think an equivalent would be a current-day monument featuring T’Challa: A lovely and poignant tribute, the significance of which will likely be lost on future generations.
 William Lyon MacKenzie-King was a man of famously eccentric inspirations. Among other things, as a devoted son he made it a point never to make an important political decision without first consulting his beloved mother. That his mother died several years before he became Prime Minister was not seen by him to be an obstacle to these consultations.
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