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It’s time for Canada to create a national portrait gallery

Canada's 150th anniversary is the ideal time to create a legacy that will enrich our country for generations to come. A national portrait gallery is just such a legacy.

To some, "national portrait gallery" conjures up images of formal paintings of people in starched collars sitting in stiff poses. But today's portrait galleries are nothing like that.

Modern portrait galleries, like those drawing crowds by the thousands in capital cities such as London, Washington and Canberra, are technology-drenched spaces that deploy interactive and innovative ways to give historians, students and art enthusiasts alike access to the country's ongoing narratives, both on-site and online.

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What's in a portrait? The quick answer: a story. A big story.

To look into the eyes of those who shaped Canada's history and those who are paving the path to tomorrow is to feel the immediacy and intimacy of our journey as a country. From Indigenous peoples to early settlers; from inventors to athletes; from activists to artists; from feminist trailblazers to political movers and shakers, a collection of portraits offers a panoramic view of Canada's past, present and future and illuminates the diversity that makes up our identity.

There is no substitute for a face-to-face encounter with a portrait. Isn't the sustained popularity of the "selfie" a testament to our intuitive desire to put faces to our shared experiences?

As a country, we're blessed with a rich heritage of portraiture. Library and Archives Canada alone holds more than 20,000 paintings, drawings and prints. Most are unseen by Canadians, and are looking for a national venue to call home.

The doors are open again to talk about what to do with the architectural gem sitting vacant at 100 Wellington St. in Ottawa, directly across the street from the Parliament Buildings. And Canadians are talking.

A recent Ipsos poll found two-thirds of Canadians like the idea of a portrait gallery setting up shop at 100 Wellington. Young and old responded with enthusiasm. Supporters are found from coast to coast, with the highest level of support coming from Quebec. The poll also revealed that the more portrait gallery enthusiasts know about its benefits to the country, the more they want it to happen.

Just as the creation of the Canadian War Museum opened up the vaults of our military collections, informing and inspiring millions, so too, would a national portrait gallery create the opportunity to connect with the men and women who have shaped – and are shaping – our country.

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A national portrait gallery would complete the constellation of museums already in Canada's capital: the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian Museum of History and the Canadian War Museum. Together, they would constitute a cultural and historical hub for all Canadians to enjoy.

Some $11-million has already been spent to convert the former U.S. embassy building into a portrait gallery and ongoing costs are being incurred for security, payments in lieu of taxes and temporary heating. It's time to take 100 Wellington out of limbo and finish the project originally launched more than a decade ago.

While other countries are celebrating the achievements of their countries through the accomplishments of their people, Canada has no such dedicated gallery.

It's time to change that.

Lawson A.W. Hunter is chairman of the Ottawa Art Gallery and an Ottawa lawyer.

Charlotte Gray is author of the national bestseller The Promise of Canada: 150 Years – People And Ideas That Have Shaped Our Country.

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