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Don't move The Archer: Indigenous art is important, but so is our civic history

A tussle involving public art, cultural heritage and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples is threatening to break out at Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto's premier civic space.

An Indigenous cultural agency wants to see a monument featuring a 12-foot-long turtle placed in the square outside City Hall as part of the reconciliation process. The idea sailed through city council's aboriginal-affairs committee last month and its executive committee this month with little fuss or fanfare.

The trouble, not publicly aired till now, is that backers want the monument to take the place of The Archer, the abstract bronze sculpture that has been a landmark almost as long as the modernist City Hall itself. That is bound to kick up dust in Toronto's arts community. The Archer played a significant role in the city's cultural history.

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Viljo Revell, the Finnish architect who won a competition to create a new Toronto city hall, approached renowned British artist Henry Moore for a sculpture to stand outside the dramatic building. When the city got a look at the design, a raging controversy broke out. One typical group of petitioners called the sculpture, formally known as Three-Way Piece No. 2, "lurid, grotesque and ludicrous." City council voted down the purchase, so mayor Philip Givens had to raise the funds from private donors. When the form was finally unveiled on Oct. 27, 1966, the mayor crowed that "the Philistines have retreated in disorder."

The episode is rightly viewed as the time that Toronto grew up, leaving its narrow-minded, parochial days behind. It had a practical result, too: Pleased by how Toronto benefactors had rallied to his cause, Mr. Moore donated a major collection of his work to the Art Gallery of Ontario.

All that seems lost on backers of the turtle. The Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre prepared a backgrounder on the Restoration of Identity monument. A spokeswoman for the group, board designate Andrea Chrisjohn, told me she has nothing against The Archer, but "What does that archer represent? How does it represent me or my family."

On the other hand, she said, the turtle is a significant Indigenous symbol.

"The land that we live on, in our teachings, is the turtle, this Turtle Island. We are all residing here on the back of the turtle."

Her group's backgrounder explains that the idea for the turtle structure grew out of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. It called for capital cities across the country to raise highly visible public structures to commemorate the victims and survivors of residential schools.

As the backgrounder puts it, Toronto's structure will be the turtle, "symbolic of Mother Earth and important to all First Nations from the west coast to the east coast." It will show a snapping turtle climbing over a boulder holding the name of 13 Ontario residential schools, "representing the resiliency, recovery and overcoming by residential-school survivors."

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Ms. Chrisjohn insists the monument should be in a prominent place, near the front doors of City Hall, so that visitors can go inside and learn more about the subject. The place where The Archer stands fits the bill perfectly, she says. Her group also looked at putting the turtle in the square's reflecting pool and ice rink, but its bulk and weight made that impossible. The Archer, she says, could be moved to another spot, perhaps joining the other Moores at the AGO.

Chris Pommer of PLANT architects, part of the team that redesigned Nathan Phillips Square, says that while he understands how important it is to mark what happened in residential schools, it would be a shame if the commemoration came at the expense of The Archer. If the purpose is to make up for one form of historical erasure, "it doesn't seem appropriate that we should be erasing an important piece of culture" in the process.

Mike Layton, a city councillor who co-chairs the aboriginal-affairs committee, says he hopes it doesn't come to that. City officials still need to study the proposal. Nothing has been decided, and "I'm not sure it needs to be where The Archer is. I'm not sure we need to remove something in order to put something up." He would prefer to see the turtle at some other prominent place on the square, perhaps on the opposite side of the big stage, beside the skating-rink building.

Frankly, though, even that would be a problem. The whole point of the recently completed renovation of Nathan Phillips Square was to return this glorious space to its original, spare grandeur and leave lots of room for big public gatherings. Designers managed to persuade the city to move the Peace Garden, which had been plunked in the middle of the square in the 1980s, to a much better site just to the west.

One possible solution is to put the turtle monument just to the southwest of the main square, on the now-empty plot, south of the Peace Garden, that was supposed to be the site of a restaurant before that plan fell through. Right next to busy Queen Street West, it would get plenty of visitors. Another idea is to place it at Queen's Park, the provincial legislature. That would certainly qualify as the highly visible place that such a memorial deserves.

But the city should hold the line on The Archer. Like it or not, this sculpture is an important symbol of Toronto's evolution. As much as Mr. Revell's City Hall, it represents that shining moment when the city overcame its pursed-lipped conservatism and timidity to embrace the future. Let it remain just where it is.

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More

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