Mother Canada: Refusing To Be Forgotten

Like a Netflix reboot of a canceled TV series, Mother Canada has reappeared on my screen this summer.

I’d all but forgotten the plan to build the 24-meter-high sad lady in Green Cove in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park — a plan that simultaneously flouted both the Parks Canada mandate and every monument design best practice known to man — but others in our community have been receiving regular reminders of its existence from its originator and chief proponent, Toronto businessman Tony Trigiani.

It seems Trigiani continues to send the “weird care packages” first described by the CBC’s Nina Corfu back in February 2017.

Spectator columnist Sean Howard, who led the opposition to Trigiani’s proposed development as part of the (since disbanded) Friends of Green Cove group, tells me he’s been receiving the packages regularly since the plug was pulled on the project in 2016:

I have repeatedly pleaded with Mr. Trigiani not to send me these bizarre ‘packages’ I (and many others) find kitsch and vitriolic, indulging a brand of hyberbolic, nauseating nationalism so typical of the whole Mother Canada nightmare. What matters, though, isn’t whether he hurts my feelings but whether he will ever get the chance to harm Green Cove. And I don’t believe he ever will.

 

Sparkling narwhals

I’ll get to the “vitriol” in a moment. First, I’d like to focus on the kitsch (it’s summer, after all). Behold one of Trigiani’s most recent offerings:

Now consider the accompanying card (I have made a PDF with all four pages, you may want to enlarge it to read it properly):

Narwhal_card

 

My initial reaction was, “Who is he trying to appeal to, pre-teen girls?” But then I showed the stuffed narwhal to an actual pre-teen girl and realized I was doing them a terrible disservice: when I explained the narhwal was meant to remind people about a proposed war memorial in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park and she said, “Narwhals don’t have sparkles.”

They also, as best I can discover, don’t hang around the waters off Cape Breton — they are found “in the northern hemisphere throughout the Polar region” — so I’m not sure what this particular narwhal is doing off the coast of Green Cove, or how he came to be exposed to Bette MacDonald’s Mary Morrison routines. I also don’t see how Trigiani expects to win over those who opposed his development plans on environmental grounds by bombarding them with a steady stream of landfill-fodder, but perhaps he knows something I don’t.

As you may have noticed, the accompanying card bears the emblem of the Never Forgotten National Memorial (NFNM) Foundation, a registered Canadian charity founded by Trigiani to raise funds for the monument. (A note on the website informs visitors that the foundation continues to accept donations but is not actively fundraising at this time.)

As a registered charity, the foundation must be cautious about engaging in political activities. According to the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA):

A registered charity may pursue political activities only if the activities are non-partisan, related to its charitable purposes, and limited in extent. A political activity is any activity that explicitly communicates to the public that a law, policy or decision of any level of government inside or outside Canada should be retained, opposed, or changed.

Which explains why the narwhal card, while explicitly communicating to the public the need to change a decision of the federal government, keeps the message non-partisan:

At election time, please question whoever you may wish to represent your best interests in the next Parliament, that if they are successfully elected or re-elected, and if they concur with our position In this matter, that they promise to insist that their party will follow through and immediately direct Parks Canada to return to the bargaining table. And that they do so with the clear mandate, to respectfully and in good faith, professionally work out whatever differences or challenges remain unsolved or unaddressed, in order for them to move forward with granting a License Of Occupation (aka Building Permit) to the NFNM Foundation.

Not so the second Trigiani gift shared with me by Howard — which brings us to the vitriol.

 

“Justa Coiffeur”

This Easter, Howard received this:

 

The accompanying card did not bear the NFNM logo (nor any other logo or signature) but the return address was Trigiani’s Norstar Corporation and the message, this time, was decidedly partisan (again, I have turned it into a four-page PDF):

easter_card_final

 

I can’t follow Trigiani’s logic, which holds that the Liberals’ decision to withdraw support for the Mother Canada project was at once a newly elected government making good on a campaign promise (a reality usually viewed positively by voters) and a “spiteful termination based entirely on the whims of [Gerald] Butts” (Prime Minister Trudeau’s former principle secretary now, apparently, playing a “key role” in the Liberals’ re-election campaign).

Trigiani (I think it’s got to be Trigiani, whose distinctive writing style can be sampled here) goes on to paint Butts as:

…a highly dedicated “Eco-Warrior In Black Tights,” with deep financial connections within several large America “For-Hire” Protest Groups.

Back in 2017, when the CBC first reported on Trigiani’s packages, he confirmed to Corfu that he sent them to:

…more than 500 business leaders, academics, journalists and politicians…

I don’t know that this particular Easter card went to 500 “business leaders, academics, journalists and politicians,” but if it went to even 25 or 50 or 100 it has to make you question Trigiani’s PR acumen. I find it hard to believe anyone reading the “Easter” screed would finish it and say, “Yes, this man should be given carte blanche to do what he likes in our national parks.”

But then again, I found it very hard to imagine that anyone could look at Trigiani’s Mother Canada design — a design he came up with himself, harnessing all his experience as a manufacturer of food-grade polyethylene bags to achieve a result the Globe and Mail hailed as “grotesque,” “bombastic” and “offensively tasteless” and the Guardian characterized as “an awkwardly remodelled, vastly upscaled version of an earlier statue” — and think: “I love it.”

But people did.

 

Complete operations

What I’m most curious about, however, is whether the CRA would agree that while Tony Trigiani, “President & CEO/Volunteer” of the Never Forgotten National Memorial Foundation, must be non-partisan in his appeals for support for the Mother Canada project, Tony Trigiani, private citizen, can be as partisan as he pleases while drumming up support for the same cause.

I’m not sure that the firewall between Citizen Trigiani and NFNM Foundation President & CEO Tony Trigiani is sufficiently solid.

I sent a copy of the Easter message to the CRA asking for an opinion and received the following response from communications manager Ashley Clarke-Kelloway:

As the protection of taxpayer information is of utmost importance, the confidentiality provisions of the Income Tax Act prevent the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) from commenting on specific cases. However, we can provide you with the following general information.

On December 13, 2018, Royal Assent was given to legislation that amended the Income Tax Act to explicitly allow charities to fully engage in public policy dialogue and development activities (PPDDAs), provided the activities are in support of a charity’s stated charitable purpose.

The Act places no limits on the amount of such activities that a charity can engage in. Therefore, a charity may devote up to 100% of its resources to PPDDAs that further its stated charitable purposes. PPDDAs generally involve seeking to influence the laws, policies, or decision of a government, whether in Canada or a foreign country. However, despite this increased latitude to carry on PPDDAs, charities continue to be prohibited from devoting any part of their resources to the direct or indirect support or opposition to any political party or candidate for public office.

In all cases, the CRA considers a charity’s complete operations to determine if it continues to meet the requirements of the Act and common law.

For more information on the changes to the rules governing the political activities of charities, go to Public policy dialogue and development activities by charities.

If members of the public are concerned that a registered charity, or a member of a registered charity, is not complying with the provisions of the Act, they are encouraged to contact the CRA’s Leads Program. However, please note that the CRA cannot provide any feedback or updates on leads it receives or subsequent actions taken, unless they result in a charity being revoked, annulled, suspended, or penalized. The CRA posts such cases in its List of charities.

I still don’t know whether Trigiani’s activities as a private citizen could cause problems for his charity but the phrase, “the CRA considers a charity’s complete operations” makes me think he’d probably better tread carefully.

Of course, common sense makes me think precisely the same thing.

 

Just the facts

As a registered charity, the NFNM Foundation is required to report certain information regularly to the CRA and I’ve created a few tables from its 2014-2018 annual reports:

 

NFNM Foundation Revenues 2014-2018

YearReceipted DonationsNon-Receipted DonationsGifts from Other Registered CharitiesGovernment FundingAll Other RevenueTotal Revenue
2014$865,775.00 (88.11%)$25,500.00 (2.60%)$1,295.00 (0.13%)$90,003.00 (9.16%)$0.00 (0.00%)$982,573.00
2015$498,275.00 (96.18%)$0.00 (0.00%)$9,624.00 (1.86%)$10,000.00 (1.93%)$141.00 (0.03%)$518,040.00
2016$208,250.00 (58.93%)$118,214.00 (33.45%)$26,946.00 (7.62%)$0.00 (0.00%)$0.00 (0.00%)$353,410.00
2017$26,250.00 (68.65%)$0.00 (0.00%)$11,988.00 (31.35%)$0.00 (0.00%)$0.00 (0.00%)$38,238.00
2018 $400.00 (5.23%)$0.00 (0.00%)$7,245.00 (94.77%) $0.00 (0.00%)$0.00 (0.00%)$7,645.00
Total$1,598,950.00$143,714.00$57,098.00$100,003.00$141.00$1,899,906.00

(Source: CRA)

 

NFNM Foundation Expenses 2014-2018

YearCharitable programsManagement and adminFundraisingPolitical activitiesGifts to other registered charities & qualified doneesOther Total
2014$817,563.00 (93.17%)$44,336.00$15,571.00 (1.77%)$0.00 (0.00%)$0.00 (0.00%)$0.00 (0.00%)$877,470.00
2015$236,581.00 (79.93%)$37,959.00 (12.82%)$21,441.00 (7.24%)$0.00 (0.00%) $0.00 (0.00%)$0.00 (0.00%)$295,981.00
2016$90,154.00 (71.78%)$24,138.00 (19.22%)$11,311.00 (9.01%)$0.00 (0.00%)$0.00 (0.00%)$0.00 (0.00%)$125,603.00
2017 $42,510.00 (77.94%)$12,032.00 (22.06%)$0.00 (0.00%)$0.00 (0.00%)$0.00 (0.00%)$0.00 (0.00%)$54,542.00
2018$7,575.00 (34.06%)$14,667.00 (65.94%)$0.00 (0.00%)$0.00 (0.00%)$0.00 (0.00%)$0.00 (0.00%)$22,242.00
Total$1,194,838$133,132$48,323$0.00$0.00$0.00$1,375,838

(Source: CRA)

 

As you can see, donations have slowed significantly from $865,775 in 2014 to $400 last year, with expenses following the same downward trajectory — from $877,470 in 2014 to $22,242 last year.

Mind you, Trigiani is clear on the website that he is no longer actively fundraising and the message of the sparkly narwhal card is that there will be no further fundraising until the NFNM Foundation has a “License of Occupation” from Parks Canada and an understanding:

That if the NFNM Foundation proves to be equally successful with whatever funding requirements are clearly established and legally agreed to in advance, then we can and will and with no further obstructions, begin actual construction on Phase One of this historic public/private initiative at the Green Cove site.

But while $865,775 sounds impressive, it’s a drop in the bucket given the monument’s estimated $25 million to $60 million price tag and the Foundation, according to a 2015 Buzzfeed article, fully intended to look for government money for the project. (And as noted below, it received some government money, too, in the form of a $100,000 grant from Parks Canada.)

The Foundation’s faltering finances have had a direct effect on at least two people — the Foundation’s employees who saw their salaries decline each year from 2014 to 2016, before first one, then the other, was apparently let go:

NFNM Foundation Employee Compensation & Professional Services 2014-2018

YearFull-time EmployeesPart-time EmployeesTotal Compensation (all positions)Professional & Consulting FeesCompensated Full-Time positions ($1-$39,999)
201420$58,658.00$143,251.002
201520$42,413.00$111,653.002
201620$31,638.00$50,655.002
201710$20,127.00$5,392.001
201800$0.00 $4,680.00
0
Total$152,836$315,631

(Source: CRA)

 

Remember me

The NFNM website (which we helped pay for, through that $100,000 Parks Canada grant mentioned earlier) is surprisingly professional looking, but don’t let that fool you: beneath the elegant exterior beats the heart of a sparkly, pink narwhal.

The Trigiani aesthetic, forced into submission by the graphic designers, bubbles forth any time there’s text — and there’s quite a bit of text, because not content with simply designing the Mother Canada statue (and the surrounding attractions, like the “We See Thee Rise Observation Deck” and the “Commemorative Ring of True Patriot Love”), Trigiani has also devised a series of ceremonies and sub-monuments intended to drag the entire country into the crazy.

I have neither the time nor space nor, let’s face it, inclination to do this full justice, so let me just hit a couple of highlights:

 

The Necklace of Tears

This is a program that will allow visitors to the NFNM website to “adopt” a member of “Our Fallen.”

After you’ve “adopted” your dead Canadian soldier, you pay to erect a “commemorative upright marker” to him somewhere along the Trans-Canada Trail. Between the markers, the Foundation will place:

…symbolic ‘link’ stones…to resemble the links of a necklace, uniting each and every member of Our Fallen in a single chain across the places they held so dear.

The First World War claimed the lives of an estimated 60,000 Canadians. The Trans-Canada Trail covers 24,000 kilometers. That means 2.5 commemorative upright markers per kilometer, which means they will need an awful lot of symbolic “link” stones.

Moreover, the adopter gets to decide where to place the commemorative marker, meaning it could end up in a place the “fallen hero” did not hold dear at all. It could end up in a place he joined the army to escape. (Seriously, just think about it for a moment and I’m sure you’ll come up with a place you would not want your commemorative marker placed. Mine is the boardroom of the Port of Sydney Development Corporation.)

 

National Repatriation Day Homecoming Tour

Beginning on Commonwealth Day, the repatriated soil and seawater capsules will be brought to Ottawa for respectful public viewings before being toured across Canada on the National Homecoming Tour. This tour will take the capsules to Victoria, BC before proceeding east again towards the Never Forgotten National Memorial. The Homecoming Tour will give those unable to make the trip to Remembrance Point a chance to experience the symbolic return of Our Fallen firsthand.

How, exactly, does one stage a “respectful public viewing” of a seawater capsule? Are we talking Contact-C capsule or manned space capsule? Either way, how will you stop people from laughing?

 

Arrogance?

The problem, as I see it, is that Trigiani has asked himself how he would like to be commemorated, had he fallen in battle at the age of 17 and been buried in Europe, far from his Canadian home. And his answer was, “I’d want a statue of a big, sad lady, looking out to sea, wishing I’d return. I’d want a commemorative marker that ATV drivers could throw their empty beer cans at on the Trans-Canada Trail. I’d want a capsule of dirt that would travel the country for respectful viewings by my fellow Canadians who would look at it and think of me and weep.”

But isn’t it arrogant to assume that everyone would want to be remembered the way you would want to be remembered? To believe that everyone is as mawkish and self-aggrandizing as you are? That everyone thinks of the First World War — or war in general — as you do?

Historians don’t agree on First World War-related questions as basic as, “How did it start?” so deciding how we’re to commemorate it as a nation is not a question for one man to settle.

Besides, isn’t it a bit arrogant to dismiss as inadequate the many ways in which Canadians already commemorate their war dead?

Even I, who found all the “Canada as Proud Warrior” stuff under Stephen Harper simplistic and tiresome, find the Remembrance Day ceremonies at the Cape Breton Highlanders monument on the Esplanade in Sydney touching. I like to go with my father, who was a kid during World War II but who knew many who had fought and can tell stories about them — stories from which they emerge as living, breathing people not the holy martyrs of Trigiani’s accounts.

It’s not a big ceremony or a long ceremony or one that involves capsules of European dirt, but it feels right. To scale. And I leave every year thinking that I hate war and that the best way to honor “Our Fallen” would be to ensure no one ever had to fight in one again.

And then I say a quiet prayer to the Great Sparkly Narwhal who watches over us all, asking her to make it so.