Centenarian statue is definitely one of us

When someone reaches a milestone birthday as significant as 100 years, it’s customary to reflect and take stock. Perhaps we can be forgiven for indulging in a bit of anthropomorphism by extending similar attention to an inanimate object when the object is Manitoba’s most famous statue.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/11/2019 (1105 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When someone reaches a milestone birthday as significant as 100 years, it’s customary to reflect and take stock. Perhaps we can be forgiven for indulging in a bit of anthropomorphism by extending similar attention to an inanimate object when the object is Manitoba’s most famous statue.

Golden Boy survived bombing, perilous trip before taking his place on Broadway

Morning light pours on the golden boy at the Manitoba Legislature Wednesday morning in Winnipeg. Sculpted in 1918 in France the 5.25 m statue was first erected on the dome of the Legislature in 1919 and continues to be a symbol of Manitoba. -Standup photo- Sept 11, 2013 (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

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Once upon a little over a century ago, it appears Manitoba’s most recognizable man was almost made a woman.

“La figure pourrait représenter le succès ou le progrès de Manitoba ou n’importe quoi,” British architect Frank Worthington Simon wrote to French sculptor Georges Gardet in August 1915.

The sculpture could represent Manitoba’s success or progress or anything.

“Ce n’est pas nécessaire non plus que ce soit une femme,” Simon said.

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The Golden Boy was lifted atop the dome of the Manitoba legislature on Nov. 21, 1919, and for the past century, he has kept vigil, high enough to see the big picture but close enough to witness how Winnipeg has been transformed in that time.

Longtime Winnipeggers have perhaps become accustomed to the remarkable pecularity that this city is being observed from on high by a torch-wielding naked man, but the novel sight always grabs the attention of visitors. Invariably, visitors make the same joke; they note Golden Boy’s nakedness and, given Winnipeg’s notorious weather, say something like “Someone should put a parka on him before winter comes.” As good hosts, we grin as if the quip is original.

Beyond his uniqueness, the Golden Boy means different things to different people.

For the many Manitobans who are descended from immigrants, the Golden Boy is a symbol of this province’s wide-open welcome to people from other countries. The statue was built in France and came to a Canadian port by ship and then to Winnipeg by rail. His perch on the legislature’s dome can be seen as a symbol of the high positions to which newcomers can aspire in Manitoba.

For people whose livelihoods depend on the province’s economic success, the Golden Boy still stands on its initial assignment of symbolizing the spirit of capitalism. He carries a sheaf of wheat to represent commerce and a torch to represent enterprise. While some initial planners might have considered erecting the statue facing south, toward the sun, it was instead positioned northward, to where Manitoba’s future prosperity was thought to lie.

As a 1988 government news release put it, “He faces the north, with its wealth of minerals, fish, lumber, furs and water power, and its subarctic seaport.”

Facing north for a century, the statue has also seen the worst of Manitoba’s history. It isn’t difficult to imagine tears rolling down the golden cheeks of the statue that has faced the systemic mistreatment of northern Indigenous people and the pollution of Manitoba’s largest lakes.

The Golden Boy turns 100 this week. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

For many in the LGBTTQ+ community, any mention of the Golden Boy’s not-so-private parts might lead to discussion of his status as a gay icon, apparently because of his location over what was once Winnipeg’s busiest cruising neighbourhood and because, as a representation of a Greek god, his good looks and fit figure are undeniable.

As University of Winnipeg gender-studies teacher Shawna Dempsey puts it: “He’s such a queer-looking, beautiful young man.”

While not everyone will be inclined to embrace the frivolity of a birthday party for a statue, it’s likely that the Golden Boy has won the hearts of even the most curmudgeonly grumblers among us. There’s nothing like him anywhere else in Canada, and we appreciate something we can call our own.

The Golden Boy has now been in Winnipeg for 100 years. Surely that’s long enough to be accepted as one of us.

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