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Grave situation

Canada not tending final resting places of its leaders as it should: report

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OTTAWA -- The stone base of Sir Wilfrid Laurier's grave is rusting badly and may have to be replaced if the staining cannot be washed away.

The marble markers inside Sir John A. Macdonald's family plot are so badly deteriorated -- a result of improper cleaning in the past -- there's no means of reversing the ongoing damage.

And it's almost impossible to read the inscription on Sir Mackenzie Bowell's grave because the wording has become illegible.

On the eve of Canada Day weekend, inspection reports released to Postmedia News suggest Canadians are not looking after the gravesites of our former leaders as we should.

"That's a commentary on Canada as a society," said Roger Gallaway, a former Liberal MP who got the prime ministerial grave program up and running in 1999 to maintain the final resting places of each deceased leader. "In Canada, we've always had a reluctance to deal with our past."

Missing memorials, cracked stones, rusting bolts on flagpoles, slumping soil, poor maintenance and fading inscriptions are among the issues federal workers identified during the most recent inspections of the gravesites of Canada's 15 deceased prime ministers.

"There is a basic, certain level of commitment the nation must make to these people," said Duncan McDowall, a historian in Kingston, Ont., which is home to Sir John A. Macdonald's grave.

Parks Canada, through the Monuments and Historic Sites Board of Canada, says it will deal with the past in the near future. The monuments board has created a to-do list so the graves are in good shape by 2017, when Canada celebrates the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

In late 2011, reviewers visited each grave to detail problems and see what had changed since a similar review in 2005. The site review reports, finalized in March, lay out a four-year restoration plan for each site, complete with work to be done year by year.

Julie Dompierre, director of the monuments board, said the board doesn't yet have an estimate for how much it will cost to fix every problem.

But the reviews found a secondary problem for some gravesites. In at least five cases, a murky understanding of jurisdictional responsibilities, or disputes over the maintenance of the gravesites, have put issues that need to be dealt with into limbo.

"It has come to our attention as well that there may be some confusion about roles and responsibilities," she said.

At the grave of John Diefenbaker, the roadway leading to it is cracking and crumbling because Parks Canada and the University of Saskatchewan aren't sure who should maintain the area, a situation that would send a shiver through Dief the Chief's legendary jowls.

The same administrative problem appears at William Lyon Mackenzie King's gravesite in Toronto, where the administrative vacuum has meant issues identified in 2005 have gone unheeded, including removing dead maple tree branches that could crash down on the grave of Canada's longest-serving prime minister.

Parks Canada created a conservation plan for Arthur Meighen's gravesite in 2000, which needs more earth to level out slumping soil, but never handed over the plan to the small cemetery in St. Mary's, Ont., where Meighen lies.

The wording on John Sparrow Thompson's grave marker also needs repair -- but while Holy Cross Cemetery in Halifax believes more white paint should be used to highlight the inscription, Parks Canada argues the paint will only speed up the erosion of the stone.

"There are always hiccups in any program," Gallaway said.

"It was a clear responsibility that Parks Canada would take the bull by the horns," Gallaway said. "It's unfortunate Parks Canada and others aren't communicating."

Since the program's inception in 1999, Parks Canada has spent about $600,000 to repair and maintain each site, Dompierre said.

The program doesn't have its own budget, Dompierre said, but draws on existing funds to pay for work on an as-needed basis.

When the program launched, it marked a concerted national effort to restore prime ministerial gravesites, said McDowall, the official historian at Queen's University.

McDowall said there was also a debate about repatriating the lone prime minister buried outside of Canada, R.B. Bennett, but the decision was ultimately made to leave the Depression-era leader in his churchyard grave in a Surrey hamlet, an hour's train ride from London.

The final resting places of Canada's deceased prime ministers are, for the most part, not grandiose, such as the resting spots for American presidents.

Sir Robert Borden's grave is marked by a small grey stone in the Beechwood Cemetery in Ottawa. Lester B. Pearson's grave in a tiny rural cemetery in the Gatineau hills, north of Ottawa, has a black and grey headstone surrounded by flowers.

Laurier, who is in a grand, raised sarcophagus, is the exception.

"We have a different political culture here," McDowall said. "We have a genetic predisposition to avoid that because we have never had that homogenized, unified nationalism."

When a former prime minister dies, the Department of Canadian Heritage takes the lead on planning a state funeral. At the same time, the monuments board contacts the family about the gravesite program to see if they're interested in taking part.

The monuments board creates a conservation plan for the site in consultation with the cemetery and family, and adds the site to its promotional material for history buffs who want to visit.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau's grave south of Montreal in Saint-Remi, Que., doesn't have a Parks Canada marker or flagpole at the family's request, Dompierre said.

The first prime ministerial grave to get an overhaul was Alexander Mackenzie's, who is buried in Sarnia, blocks from Gallaway's home. In 1999, Mackenzie's grave was in such bad condition that no one knew who was buried in the plot, Gallaway said.

The grave is in much better shape now, but the relationship between Parks Canada and the cemetery where Mackenzie lies is not as rosy as it could be.

The monument board noted in its report Parks Canada had to outsource maintenance around the plot because the local cemetery's own practices were damaging some of the gravestones in the plot.

"Lakeview Cemetery is not happy with this arrangement as it undermines its roles and responsibilities," the report says.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 1, 2012 J16

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