The term commemoration is used to encompass all of the acts that we as a society perform to honour the memory of someone or something. It is also a term used to refer to an object intended to preserve the memory of someone or something from the present to future generations. The key in understanding the role of commemorations is that they are intended to preserve the public memory of something. It is for this reason that we often refer to them as memorials. They are also a statement, as the generation that performs the act of commemoration is informing future generations that they believe that the subject of the memorial is worthy enough to be remembered.
There are many forms of commemoration within the Centre Block, ranging from plaques, such as the Parliamentary Plaques on the first floor, to portraits and sculpture. Certainly one of the most impressive, both in terms of style and size, is the Nurses' Memorial located in the northern section of the Hall of Honour. It is a remarkable example of low relief sculpture; carved out of a single piece of beautiful white Italian Carrera marble, measuring 537 cm by 288 cm and weighing approximately 6 tons.
The project was initiated in January 1922 when the Canadian Association of Trained Nurses, the forerunner of today's Canadian Nurses Association, approached the Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. William Lyon Mackenzie King, regarding the possibility of installing a memorial to army nursing sisters who had died during the First World War in the new Centre Block. The Prime Minister referred the request to the Minister of Public Works and for the next six months discussions between Public Works, the Nurses Association, and the Prime Minister resulted in the suggestion that the memorial be installed in Major's Hill Park.
At first, this proposal appeared acceptable to all of the parties involved. However, by May 1922, the Association's business committee had approached the Prime Minister directly in the hope of having the memorial installed in the Hall of Honour. On June 1st, a meeting was held in the Hall of Honour to discuss a possible location for the memorial. Based on reports of the meeting, the Prime Minister was instrumental in changing the character of the commemoration, turning it from a war memorial into "a historical tableau, illustrating a broad period of Canadian history and illustrating the Canadian experience." King's comments established the basic thematic parameters of the sculpture.
It took a further two years to identify a sculptor for the work. In December 1924, noted Canadian sculptor, George William Hill was awarded the commission by the Memorial Committee of the Canadian Association of Trained Nurses and subsequently accepted by the Cabinet and Prime Minister. The monument cost $38,000 and was paid entirely through funds contributed by nurses from across the country and their provincial associations.
Hill's proposal for the sculpture, one of approximately six submitted, emphasized the theme of a historical tableau; a full size plaster model of the work was exhibited in the Centre Block by the end of January 1925. The sculpture itself was completed by Hill in Italy and shipped to Canada where it was unveiled on August 24, 1926.
The finished sculpture is comprised of three components supporting the main theme of the heroic service of nursing sisters from the founding of Hôtel Dieu in Québec City in 1639 to the end of the First World War. Hill, himself, described the meaning of the figures in the following way:
“ The group on the left-hand side of the design represents the courage and self sacrifice of the nurses who offered their services and lives in the great cause of freedom. Two sisters dressed in service uniform are nursing a wounded soldier.
In the background is "History" holding the Book of Records from 1639 to 1918, who, lifting the veil, reveals down through the ages the great deeds of heroism and martyrdom of the early nursing sisters.
The group on the right of the panel represents these noble sisters who at the call of "Humanity" left their native country, France, and came to a land to help the sick and needy. A sister within the palisades is nursing a sick Indian child.
In the centre dividing the two groups and presiding over them, stands the draped figure "Humanity" with outstretched arms. She holds in one hand her scepter, the Caduceus, the emblem of healing - and with the other indicates the heroic courage and self-sacrificing loyalty of the nurses down through the ages. ”
While the classical allegorical style of the sculpture may require some interpretation to understand its meaning, the inscription at the base of the monument is very clear. It states:
“ Erected by the nurses of Canada in remembrance of their sisters who gave their lives in the Great War, Nineteen Fourteen-Eighteen, and to perpetuate a noble tradition in the relations of the old world and the new.
Led by the Spirit of Humanity across the seas woman, by her tender ministrations to those in need, has given to the world the example of heroic service embracing three centuries of Canadian history. ”
Hill's sculpture is a remarkable and beautiful contribution to the Centre Block, a work that serves as the focus for an annual Remembrance Day ceremony, that took over four years to create, but whose message will endure for generations to come.