The Conservative government quietly planned to sell a pair of historic paintings by Quebec modern master Alfred Pellan after replacing them with a portrait of the Queen in the main reception area at the Department of Foreign Affairs.
But it appears that after a public outcry in Quebec over the switch, the plan to sell the valuable works was spiked.
Seven months after they were packaged up and sent to a storage facility, the paintings Canada West and Canada East have still not been put back on public display.
The debate over what to do with the paintings, valued by the department at $90,000 each, is detailed in a package of documents obtained under Access to Information legislation.
Removed for royal visit
With about 10 days' notice last June, bureaucrats were instructed by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird's office to put up a portrait of the Queen in the lobby of the Lester B. Pearson building in downtown Ottawa.
Bureaucrats initially suggested that the Queen and the Pellan paintings – which broadly depict western and eastern Canadian landscapes in vivid colours – could share the same space.
Pellan painted the pieces during the Second World War for the new Canadian mission in Brazil, and they have hung in the Pearson building for nearly 30 years.
But the idea of Her Majesty going shoulder to shoulder with the Pellans was quickly quashed by the Conservatives.
'Take the red portraits down'
"There was a lot of discussion between the Minister and Deputy Minister on Friday, and despite other recommendations, they want to go with the idea in their message at the very end of this," said one facilities manager, referring to an email by Baird's adviser to "take the red portraits down."
A month later, a media response prepared by the department – but never released – revealed plans to sell the paintings.
"They are currently in the Department's art storage facility, where they are being cared for until they can be offered to various Canadian museums or other government collecting agencies for purchase and display."
Criticized in Quebec
The decision to remove the Pellans in favour of the Queen's portrait was roundly criticized by Quebec pundits as insulting and quasi-colonialist. As recently as Christmas Eve, Le Devoir's editorial cartoonist featured Santa giving a joyful prime minister a portrait of the Queen.
Pellan is one of the best known painters in the province, with several public spaces and a federal riding named after him. He was a contemporary of Paul Borduas and Jean-Paul Riopelle, but parted ways with them on Quebec sovereignty.
The Parti Québécois called for the two paintings to be returned to their home province.
By late August, plans began to circulate within the Department of Foreign Affairs to put the paintings up somewhere else – perhaps in another part of the building's lobby. Baird's office, however, has not released any details about the fate of the Pellans.
"The Government of Canada has no plans to sell these paintings," Baird spokesman Joseph Lavoie responded last week.
The decision to remove the Pellans sparked a handful of critical emails to Baird from Quebecers.
One citizen wrote "...that this government acts like a servant of her Majesty, as if we were British subjects, is deeply insulting!" – then signed off his location as "Quebec, England."
Another wrote, "I'm a federalist who is beginning to think otherwise faced with an anti-Quebec Anglophone such as yourself. It's decisions like the one you've just taken that allow the rise of separatism in Quebec."
Thomas Delworth, a retired Canadian diplomat who oversaw the hanging of the Pellans in the Pearson lobby, said the paintings should be displayed in a place where the public can enjoy them.
"I don't know of any pair of paintings anywhere in the National Gallery or anywhere else that in one fell swoop gives you a total image of this country from sea to sea," said Delworth, who retired in 1993.
"That's why they're important, and they belong to the Department of [Foreign]
Affairs. They tell the story of Canada to all the hundreds and thousands of people who walk through the doors and see them on that wall."