Not enough women: Bureaucrats critique Parliament Hill light show

Canadian Heritage has spent $4.5 million updating a new sound-and-light show on Parliament Hill, but internal documents obtained by CBC News show controversy about the content. Public servants warned there was too much war and not enough women in the production - objections overruled by the minister, Shelly Glover.

Internal documents show public servants found new sound-and-light show too focused on war and men

Criticism over Parliament Hill light show

8 years ago
Duration 2:06
Documents show public servants unhappy with war in summer program on the Hill

Too much war. Not enough women.

That was the warning from senior bureaucrats to Heritage Minister Shelly Glover as her office reviewed a new sound-and-light show to be projected on the walls of Parliament's Centre Block for tourists in the summer of 2015.

But the advice, that the show dwelt too much on Canada's role in various wars and not enough on the women who helped build the country, was not only rejected, it was also purged from the minutes of a meeting held to review the proposed contents of the $4.5-million show.

The $4.5-million sound-and-light show developed for Parliament Hill this summer makes reference to several key moments in Canada's military history, including the battle for Vimy Ridge during the First World War.

"PB was concerned about the amount of war content in the show, lack of representation of women, etc.," says an email obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act, referring to associate deputy minister Patrick Borbey and senior manager Janik Cazabon.

"JC explained that these changes had already been suggested at various stages in the content development but were rejected by MINO [minister's office]."

Critical comments deleted

The email also urged that those critical comments be removed from the official minutes of the April 15, 2015, meeting — and in fact, they disappear from the final version.

The 30-minute, bilingual sound-and-light show is called Northern Lights/Lumières du nord, a name chosen by Glover after she had rejected three alternatives put forward by her senior bureaucrats.

The show replaces Mosaika, a sound-and-light show that debuted in July 2010 and ran for five summers. The current show, which began July 10, is to run for five years, including in 2017, the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

A spokesman for Canadian Heritage said the comments about war and women were purged from the final minutes because they were inaccurate.

"The draft notes did not accurately reflect the discussion and were taken out of context," said Simon Rivet.

Where are the women?-author/historian Merna Forster

A British Columbia author who wants to restore the place of women in Canada's past says the comment about too few women is accurate in a show "with a heavy emphasis on political and military stories, and great men."

"Where are the women?" said Merna Forster after viewing a video of the show posted on YouTube.

"There are mentions of Laura Secord, Nellie McClung and Emily Carr – a few female voices and images of nurses, and women dancing the night away. …  Canadian women and their achievements are largely ignored."

Forster, who is leading a campaign to have a woman from Canadian history featured on bank notes, says the omission in the sound-and-light show is ominous as the 2017 sesquicentennial approaches.

"The pattern of marginalizing the contributions of women is offensive, and we need to make certain it doesn't happen again in federally funded celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Confederation."

Male narrator

Glover's office referred a request for comment back to department officials.

The Mosaika sound-and-light show offered a more impressionistic view of Canada's past and present, using the voices of ordinary Canadians for narration and featuring very little war content.

Northern Lights, using a dazzling projection technology, is a more traditional narrative of Canada's history, focusing much more on politics and war, largely populated with male historical figures and narrated by a male voice. Some elements from Mosaika, such as references to the Charter of Rights and to medicare, are absent in the new production.

Military historian Jonathan Vance of the University of Western Ontario was hired as a consultant for the project, and was chiefly concerned with ensuring the accuracy of the content rather than with the overall choice and balance of subjects.

Heritage Minister Shelly Glover swings a gas alarm following an announcement at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa in 2014. Glover dismissed criticisms from her bureaucrats that a summer show on Parliament Hill lacked female historical figures and dwelt too much on war. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"I'm very happy with the show in its finished version — I think it's a wonderful piece of work with some truly impressive technological flourishes," he said in an email. "I think it's very balanced, given the nature of the art form."

The internal documents show Glover's office demanded changes to earlier versions of the Northern Lights show, such as:

  • Naming the Soviet Union as an adversary in a section on Canada's role in the Cold War.
  • Removing any reference to a "compromise" reached in 1864 at the Charlottetown meeting that established Confederation.
  • Adding the Queen, using an audio clip from her 2010 Canada Day speech: "I have watched with enormous admiration how Canada has grown and matured while remaining true to its history, its distinctive character and its values."

Rivet says the 2015 show had about 270,000 spectators and only two complaints about the sound levels and lack of seating on Parliament Hill.

Glover is not running for re-election in the current campaign, but remains heritage minister until a new cabinet is sworn in.

Follow @DeanBeeby on Twitter