This Canada 150 project explores national identity in an unlikely medium: Lego

Graeme Dymond has rallied Lego users from across the country for Canada Builds 150, an ambitious project that will not shy away from the country's darker chapters.

"We're not a melting pot, we're a mosaic ... that works really well as a Lego analogy."

Dymond reflects on the historical importance of lighthouses in his write-up for Rocco Nufrio's diorama. (Rocco Nufrio/ToroLUG)

Yes, Graeme Dymond plays with Lego bricks for a living — but neither his creations, nor his motives, can be dismissed as child's play.

In 2012, Dymond defeated hundreds of other hobbyists to become Canada's first master model builder. Since then he's quit his corporate consulting job, started his own freelance Lego building company and enlisted roughly 50 other builders for his biggest project yet.

With the help of adult Lego user groups (or LUGS) from coast to coast, Dymond and fellow coordinator Adam Dodge are spearheading Canada Builds 150: a collaborative project inspired by Canada's 150th anniversary. Their team aims to capture the identity and diversity of our sprawling nation, one elaborate Lego tribute at a time. 

Early submissions include bagged milk in a pitcher, a creative re-purposing of Lego sails to make Ontario's provincial flower and a rather realistic pair of hockey skates. 

These elaborate Lego skates, built by Julie vanderMeulen, are among 150 Lego projects being made in tribute to Canada's sesquicentennial. (Julie vanderMeulen/ToroLUG)

The fledgling project has already become something of a national unifier, linking normally isolated building communities across the country.

"It's hard to do something big and coordinated. We're so geographically vast," says the Toronto-based builder, adding that most of the contributers are hobbyists with day jobs. 

A history, not a 'how to'

Like Confederation, Dymond's brainchild owes its start to Prince Edward Island.

The idea came to him at a hyper-Canadian moment, as he drove along a snowy highway playing an Anne of Green Gables soundtrack for his family.

"I've always wanted to build Green Gables. I have this love for P.E.I.," says Dymond, who began by brainstorming  distinctly Canadian structures. Not long later, he began approaching fellow Lego lovers with an idea.

Dymond’s favourite project so far is the Fairmont Royal York Hotel built by Jeff Van Winden. It’s a project he’s always wanted to do, but he’s glad to simply see made. “I wasn’t even jealous. I was just so grateful.” (Jeff Van Winden/WHaCKoLuG)

"What if we built 150 Lego models, each one highlighting a different aspect of Canadian identity?" So far he's had buy-in from builders in nearly every province.

Each model is skillfully made by Dymond or one of his many collaborators, but his online write-up about each piece is a project all its own. Never dwelling on technique or builder's jargon, the builder aims to highlight relevant histories and tell Canadian stories.

"There are plenty of blogs out there that cater to Lego fans ... I like to get into depth." - Graeme Dymond

"A beautiful build" has a power to intrigue and inspire people says Dymond, who sees Lego as a springboard into storytelling.

"There are plenty of blogs out there that cater to Lego fans," says the former history teacher. "I like to get into depth" 

Dark and difficult pieces

Importantly, Dymond says the project will not shy away from Canada's painful histories — like the collapse of Newfoundland and Labrador's cod fisheries, one of the biggest ecological disasters of the 20th century.

Cod was once so important to N.L.'s economy that it was once referred to as "Newfoundland currency," writes Dymond in his blog post about Jeff Lee's cod fishing trawler. (Jeff Lee/ToroLUG)

Dymond says there will be space for the country's most difficult stories, while noting that bright bricks and quirky figurines don't belong in every scene.

How, for instance, does one build models of Canada's residential schools? And how might Lego start a conversation about the mistreatment and abuse of thousands of Indigenous children — kids as young as the smiling redhead girl in Lego's iconic 1981 ad. (Over a dozen schools were still in operation in the year that ad first ran.) 

"There's dark chapters of Canadian history ... we feel it's important to capture that respectfully," says Dymond, adding that for sensitive stories, like Chanie Wenjack's, he wants to choose the artist carefully. 

"We don't want it to be someone who's not representative of that culture and of that story to tell it on someone else's behalf."

"There's dark chapters of Canadian history ... we feel it's important to capture that respectfully." - Graeme Dymond

Through artistry, sensitivity and the disarming appeal of Lego, Dymond hopes his project will reveal deeper truths about Canada. 

A meaningful mosaic

Dymond, the son of a classically-trained painter, hesitates to call himself an artist, but neither can he think of another term that works. His most elaborate pieces sometimes have him working 12-hour days — and that's just building. On planning days he crafts virtual models on his computer. 

His personal projects for Canada Builds 150 are currently in the planning stages. He's starting off with Bud the Spud, Big Joe Mufferaw and Wild Bill Peyto.  

"We're trained to think creativity only looks like painting or drawing or dancing," he says. "Lego is my medium."

In an effort to highlight Canada's bilingual heritage, Matthew Sklar built the French word for milk "lait" right onto the milk jug itself. (Matthew Sklar/Canada Builds 150)

Dymond also has a tendency to wax philosophical about Lego, seeing it as a tool for bringing people together and even a metaphor for a country made up of pieces as diverse as those in a Lego kit.

"We're not a melting pot, we're a mosaic. And I think that works really well as a Lego analogy," he says.  

"Building Lego really is not about just what you build. It's about the narrative you attach to it."

Adam Dodge, a fellow coordinator of Canada Builds 150, built a tribute to Canada's ice-breaking vessels. "Without the valuable services provided by these vessels, many parts of Canada would be unreachable," writes Dymond. (Adam Dodge/SLUG)

Nothing we can't build together

As ideas continue to roll in, the builders may find themselves tackling the strange textures of poutine; or making a structurally sound CN Tower; or building a scale model of the Canadian Broadcasting Center in Toronto (a CBC employee who's also a Lego hobbyist is working on that one). 

"I have no doubt that the builders can tackle anything," says Dymond. His team is very open to suggestions.

"If you have six very basic Lego bricks, 2x4s, you can combine them in over 915 million ways," he says. "There's a near infinite range of possibilities."

In short, no project is too ambitious in Dymond's mind.

Building Lego really is not about just what you build. It's about the narrative you attach to it.- Graeme Dymond

If the prime minister called him up with an unlimited budget and said he could build anything, Dymond would go straight for high art. He envisions a massive, possibly even three dimensional recreation of Benjamin West's iconic painting The Death of General Wolfe (1770). This work, too, would be paired with a thoughtful write-up about the real-world backstory. 

As lay people ponder how a Lego tribute to an oil painting is even possible, Dyamond swoons.

"It would be so cool to recreate it in Lego."

Graeme Dymond, seen here building a neighbourhood logo, won the title of Canada's first master model in 2012. (Graeme Dymond)

Are you creating art for, about or because of Canada 150? Share your paintings, photography, music, poetry, or local event with us at 2017@cbc.ca.

About the Author

Fabiola Melendez Carletti

Fabiola Melendez Carletti is a journalist and digital storyteller. She is currently lending her talents to Canada 2017, the CBC's year-long sesquicentennial project.

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