Winnipeg Cenotaph controversy — Wood’s winning design rejected by organizations

by Bruce Cherney (part 3)

Symptomatic of the sentiment that saw protest against Emanuel Hahn’s winning design for the cenotaph was the suppression of Ukrainian and German language newspapers, as well as political and social organizations during the First World War by Prime Minister Robert Borden’s Union government. Thousands of citizens were declared “enemy aliens,” including those from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In total, 1,192 Germans living in Canada and another 5,954 under the catch-all name “Austrians” — they were primarily Ukrainian immigrants — as well as 205 Turks and 99 Bulgarians were interned.

The official reason for their internment were that these “enemy aliens” posed a security risk, but some renowned Canadian historians such as Desmond Morton argue that the “Austrians” were the victims of the economy. In 1914-15, the nation was in the midst of a depression and the interned enemy aliens, as well as the thousands of others forced to register as such, became scapegoats for the high unemployment rate. In effect, the bulk of the “aliens” were enemies in name only.

When the economy recovered in 1916 and Canada’s commitment to the war effort intensified, most of those detained were released to work on farms and in war industries. As the war progressed, Canada needed the “strong backs” of the enemy aliens.

However, anyone registered as an enemy alien was barred from enlisting in the Canadian military. Some of those who did enlist and were then discovered to be registered as enemy aliens were sent to internment camps. Many of those who enlisted and evaded detection did so by Canadianizing their names. It is estimated that 2,000 Ukrainian immigrants managed to serve in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, despite the many difficulties they encountered. 

A Ukrainian woman interviewed by Winnipeg Labour leader James Shaver Woodsworth in 1917, commented, “The English do not like us, because we came here a poor people and now we are wealthy enough to live as we like.”

She could have added that Eastern Europeans came to Canada in the name of freedom to escape the oppression they faced as subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

At the end of hostilities, alleged enemy aliens were subject to deportation. 

“The deportation proceedings should not be confined to the enemy aliens that were interned,” according to the Winnipeg Telegram, a Conservative Party newspaper. “They should be extended to every alien enemy whose sympathy with the Allied cause has not been capable of a clear proof from the beginning of the war. Canada needs none of these.”

Sentiment against foreign-born citizens intensified during the Winnipeg General Strike of May-June 1919. Civic and business leaders accused the strikers of being Bolsheviks — they were transformed in name from “enemy aliens” to “radical aliens” — intent upon violently overthrowing the government, although the truth was that the vast majority of strike leaders were British- and Canadian-born, and the violence perpetrated invariably was instigated by 2,000 strikebreakers sworn-in as “special” constables and the Royal North-West Mounted Police (e.g., Bloody Saturday, June 21, 1919, when the Mounties charged strikers gathered on Main Street).

“Not a single ‘new immigrant’ — enemy alien or otherwise — was actively involved on the leadership level of the 1919 strike ...,” wrote Manitoba historian J.M. Bumsted in an article recounting the strike, which appeared in the Spring 1994 issue of the Beaver magazine. “Prominent Jewish activist Moses Almazoff pointedly spent the entire period at Gimli over 60 miles away on Lake Winnipeg.”

Sir Augustus Nanton, a leading member of the Winnipeg establishment, in 1924 summed up the sentiment against immigration from outside Britain when he said: “We welcome all good citizens from foreign lands but if they do not believe in the Christian religion, nor intend to keep our laws, they should be asked without delay to return from whence they came.”

Actually, the criteria many of the civic elite felt made a good Christian Canadian was an Anglo-Saxon professing a Protestant religion.

Newspapers proudly announced any government program which promoted immigration from the British Isles. On the front page of the November 12, 1927, Manitoba Free Press, a banner headline proclaimed a federal subsidy program, assisted by the provinces, “to increase (the) flow of suitable British settlers,” with the aim of bringing them to farm the “vacant lands” of Canada. The same front page told readers about the newest developments on the Winnipeg Cenotaph.

In the article, Robert Forke, the federal minister responsible for immigration, emphasized the government policy was to  give “first place ... to the movement from the British Isles and after this every encouragement is offered for the immigration of Scandinavians and others from the northwest countries of Europe.”

For the “foreigners” already in Manitoba, the province’s public schools were used as the instrument to teach Anglo-conformity and respect for British institutions, which was believed to be the best method of Canadianizing “aliens” from other countries.

The paranoia born of war and the strike, as well as the growing influence of the foreign-born element in their midst, prompted the business-oriented establishment to re-entrench in an attempt to maintain its grip on the reins of power in the city which had been loosening as the new century advanced. By imposing stringent property qualifications (abolished 1942) and multiple voting in city elections (eligible voters could cast a vote in each ward in which they owned property — abolished 1965), effectively disenfranchising a majority of working-class residents, the establishment strove to maintain their control over municipal politics. 

To shore up their common agenda, the establishment attended the same social and cultural organizations and lived in the same enclaves in the south end of the city. The Canadian Club, a men-only organization founded in 1904, had as its mandate the cultivation of “Canadian culture,” which was equated with “British culture.” The Women’s Canadian Club of Winnipeg, established 1907, operated under the same mandate. By the nature of its name, the IODE was a bastion of British culture on Canadian soil. 

Essentially, the city was divided along ethnic, social, economic and geographic lines, with those possessing wealth and power residing in the southern end of the city, and those excluded from power primarily living in Winnipeg’s North End on the wrong side of the tracks.

The attitude of the board of trade on the Hahn cenotaph design was just one symptom of a simmering dread that the business elite was losing the favoured — and self-proclaimed rightful — position it had enjoyed throughout Winnipeg’s and Manitoba’s early history. 

M.J. O’Connell of Inwood, wrote to the Free Press on March 13, that the board of  trade position was ‘inconsistent” and the organization was “out of its element.”

O’Connell said the Canadian ideal was “broad-based citizenship,” adding it was regrettable the cenotaph controversy ever arose, although “there should be no mistaking the point of the issue,” which was barring a significant segment of the population from the cenotaph design competition.

A letter writer, who signed his name as D.W.W. of the 18th Battalion, said the board of trade had cited veterans organizations as opposing the cenotaph design by Hahn, but: “Whatever the sentiment of these clubs amounts to, it does not represent the feelings of ex-soldiers in general.”

There existed a deep rift between commissioned and non-commissioned soldiers following the war. In fact, most non-commissioned veterans supported the Winnipeg General Strike, while the vast majority of returned officers supported the business-sponsored opposition referred to as the Committee of One Thousand. It is estimated that 85  per cent of the veterans supported the strike. 

Those opposed to the strike, such as Colonel Frederick Thompson, emphasized loyalty to “King and Country.” They believed the alien was the cause of the nation’s woes such as inflation, a high cost of living, a high unemployment rate among ex-servicemen as well as the Bolshevik “Red Menace.”

Actually, most veterans who supported the strike resented immigrants, claiming they were undesirable opportunists who had gained the upper hand at their expense by filling the labour void created when they went overseas to fight. After returning to civilian life, the soldiers’ animosity was aroused by a lack of work, which they took out on “alien” workers. For example, returned soldiers marched on the Swift meat-packing plant demanding alien workers be fired. 

At a May 2, 1919, meeting of the Great War Veterans Association, those present demanded the deportation of aliens and that all but $75 of their property be confiscated with the remainder handed out to soldiers’ orphans and widows.

But not every returned soldier was taken in by the propaganda extensively used by the authorities and businessmen which portrayed “aliens” as the scapegoat for the problems confronting the country after the war.

“It is a well known fact that the Canadian army had representatives from practically every nationality,” O’Connell wrote. “I, myself, marched beside a lad of 18 who spoke the German language fluently and he did not learn it in Canada. He was a volunteer and he lies (in a military grave) in the vicinity of Hill 70 (August 15 to 25, 1917, Canadian forces captured this strategic position on the northern approach to the city of Lens and secured the western part of the city. The fighting cost the Canadian Corps 9,198 casualties). There were, no doubt, many more who gave their all for the cause of Canada.”

O’Connell simply restated what Canadians fighting overseas began to accept as part of their new national identity. The soldiers who captured Vimy Ridge shook off their status as mere colonials (when Britain declared war in 1914, Canada was automatically at war since its foreign policy was then controlled by the British government), and began to think of themselves as Canadians first, albeit within the context of the British Commonwealth of Nations. 

“We achieved something that nobody had done before,” wrote Private James Matheson, 34, who was wounded and shipped to England for treatment after the Battle of Vimy Ridge. “I think myself that was where Canada was born.”

It was their success on the battlefield, the 66,655 Canadians killed and over 120,000 casualties, as well as the economic contribution to the war effort, which presented Borden with the opportunity to extend Canada’s position on the world stage and push for greater autonomy from Britain. His efforts resulted in Canada having its own seat at the table during the peace talks and a national presence in the newly-formed League of Nations. 

Soon after, Canada effectively took over control of its foreign policy by refusing to become entangled with the British in the Chanak crisis of 1922. If the crisis in Turkey had escalated, Britain would have again been at war, a prospect that didn’t please Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s Liberal government in Ottawa. King said the Canadian Parliament would decide if Canada went to war — not the British government. In 1931, the Statute of Westminster finally gave Canada complete autonomy in foreign policy, and made Canada a fully-independent nation within the British Commonwealth.

In view of Canada’s new national identity, newspapers in other provinces frowned upon the opinions being expressed against Hahn and naturalized Canadians in general, as did the local Free Press and Tribune. 

In a March 12, 1926, article in the Canadian Jewish Review, a newspaper calling for the end of “race discrimination” in Canada, Herbert J. Samuel referred to those opposed to the Hahn design as “patriotic hypocrites.”

“The war was waged to crush the menacing spirit of Prussianism, to make the world safe for democracy, to set men free. Yet the victory and sacrifice that gained it is to be commemorated to the spirit of the Prussian junker (Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany whose militarism brought the European nations to the point of no-return); to the triumph of intolerance and the defiance of the true spirit of democracy. What is more democratic than genius and art? Whatever it may be, the cenotaph becomes a monument not to the glorious dead, but to the inglorious living. It is now an emblem of defeat in victory.”

Samuel praised Waugh for standing up to the critics. “He gave much in  the war. His son (Lieut. A.I. Waugh of the Strathcona Horse) is among the glorious dead (killed in combat) ... He felt that Canadian citizenship is broad enough to include all who accepted it loyally in a bond of brotherhood and equality. But he, and his fellow members of the committee, have been denounced as unpatriotic and un-Canadian.”

Despite the strong defence of Hahn by Waugh and the committee members, a letter writer to the Free Press, who signed as “a next of kin,” said the objections against the Toronto sculptor were justified and a “British-born” should design the cenotaph.

Waugh released a report in May 1926, calling for a nine-month delay in any proceedings on the cenotaph. He said the delay would only result in “putting off the evil day,” but the passage of time “might bring about a unanimity of opinion.”

“It is unfortunately the case that no decision can be made which will not bring about sorrow and disappointment,” he said in his report, “but we are faced with facts which must be dealt with, and your committee respectfully submits that, taking a long view, it is preferable to follow the more generous course of action, and that any desirable affects will be much more short-lived than if the ward were not now confirmed.”

Bowing to public pressure, the committee was forced to accept Hahn’s offer to dispel the controversy by withdrawing his winning design, but it did award the $500 prize to him. In making the decision, Waugh said the payment had to be made under the terms of clause six of the committee’s contract with Hahn.

The committee called for another cenotaph design competition, which was to be limited to British-born or those born in countries Allied to Britain during the Great War.

On November 11, 1927, Elizabeth Wyn Wood, a sculptor from Toronto, was awarded the first prize in the new competition with the provision that the independent judges’ (also referred to as assessors) decision was final. 

A report given to the committee by the “assessors” felt the strength of the winning design was its originality. “It avoids the similarity of so many war memorials already erected ... The rugged execution of the dominant 

figure is outstanding, breathing, as it were, the spirit of the west with its strength and confidence, at the same time a memory of the past, emblematic of the spirit of those who answered their country’s call.”

What the judges didn’t know at the time was that Wood was Hahn’s wife. When this was discovered, controversy was reignited. It didn’t matter that Wood had fulfilled the contest citizenship requirement, as she was born in Orillia, Ontario, it was enough that she was the wife of German-born Hahn. 

In a matter of days, Wood’s relationship to Hahn became known. Following this revelation, objections to the design began to be heard at city hall. While the underlying reason was undoubtedly Wood’s relationship to Hahn, various organizations said they based their rejection solely on disliking her design.

(Next week: part  4)