Prime minister's gifts find new homes at museums, official residences

After years of confusion about where the prime minister's forfeited gifts should end up, the National Capital Commission is placing items at official residences and offering others to federal institutions such as the National Gallery, Canadian Museum of History and Library and Archives Canada.

Jewelry, portraits and Inuit art among gifts received by former prime minister Stephen Harper

What happens to all those political gifts?


5 years agoVideo
Alison Crawford investigates where all the items presented to Canadian prime ministers on official occasions end up. 2:41

It doesn't matter what time of year it is, world leaders and heads of state exchange a lot of gifts. Every time Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes an official visit or attends an international summit, presents are exchanged.

It also happens in Canada. Earlier this month, the Assembly of First Nations blanketed Trudeau with a large, hand-sewn star quilt.

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde presented a hand-sewn star quilt to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly in Gatineau, Que. earlier this month. As an official gift, it was likely handed over to be registered and kept in the government's collection. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

It's unlikely, though, to find a place on Trudeau's bed this winter.

As with all official presents, the blanket will be registered with Canada's Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner — and since it's probably worth far more than $1,000, it'll be forfeited to the Crown.

Until 2010, no one in the prime minister's office — or even the ethics commissioner — actually understood what that meant. CBC News discovered no one had been keeping track of gifts and they were scattered all over Ottawa, even stashed in the overheated, leaky attic of 24 Sussex.

Things are different now. 

We are going through a transition now, so there are some opportunities to change some of the decors and freshen them up a little bit.- Art Marcotte , National Capital Commission

"You have to be respectful of the fact that (the objects) were a gift and oftentimes a gift at a very high level," says Art Marcotte, director of official residences at the National Capital Commission, in whose hands forfeited prime ministerial gifts now end up.

Using a list of criteria, such as historical significance and suitability for a home environment, Marcotte decides whether gifted items might be appropriate for the home of the prime minister, Opposition leader or Speaker of the House of Commons. 

Inuit art always in demand

"We've placed one piece already — a carpet — and we have our eyes on a couple more. As you know, we are going through a transition now, so there are some opportunities to change some of the decors and freshen them up a little bit."

Gesturing to a sculpture of two birds nesting, carved out of muskox horn and bone, Marcotte says Inuit art is always popular and in demand.

"This has some interesting elements to it and [is] also representative of the Inuit community, so I think it is absolutely something we would consider for placement."

Some gifts destined to stay in storage

Not all gifts are suitable for display in an official residence. Over the years, former prime minister Stephen Harper received uniquely personal presents, including hiking books, monogrammed luggage, fountain pens, a sari and portraits of himself.

Finding a new home for some of the artwork presented as gifts is difficult. Art Marcotte, director of official residences at the National Capital Commission, suspects this portrait of Stephen Harper, made from crushed semi-precious stones and valued at over $16,000, won't be in high demand. (CBC News)

The value of one of the portraits, made of crushed semi-precious garnets and quartz, has been assessed at a minimum of $16,000. A gift received at the 2006 APEC Summit in Vietnam, Marcotte concedes it's unlikely to find a home.

"Certainly timing with a portrait of a prime minister can make it a little more difficult …. In the meantime, we would continue to store it and care for it properly."

Fountain pens or artifacts of that nature or very luxurious fancy watches. These are very noble, but they are relatively banal.- Xavier Gelinas , Canadian Museum of History

World leaders also exchange a popular gift for men: designer wristwatches sometimes worth tens of thousands of dollars. Again, no one wears them and they can't be displayed. Such items are offered to other federal institutions, such as Library and Archives Canada, the National Gallery or museums.

"Some of them are extremely chic but of relatively common nature," says Xavier Gelinas, curator of political history at the Canadian Museum of History.

"For instance, fountain pens or artifacts of that nature or very luxurious fancy watches. These are very noble, but they are relatively banal."

Among those items though, Gelinas has found a dozen eclectic pieces he feels document Canada's political history in a way that text and photographs simply can't. 

Preserving political history

While he took a pass on four pastel paintings done by former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, he did select a mother of pearl sculpture executed in bas relief given to Harper in 2009.

"I thought it was unusual in a positive way. This comes from the leader of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, with whom, you know, Canada has had occasionally a challenging relationship," Gelinas says.

"I thought this was a graceful or gracious gesture of the president of Palestine to do, to offer him an authentic artifact from his area and yet describing an entirely Christian scene."

This diamond and ruby jewelry set was given to Laureen Harper by the king of Saudi Arabia at the 2010 G20 Summit in Toronto. (CBC News)

The museum also acquired an extravagant diamond and ruby jewelry set given to Laureen Harper by the King of Saudi Arabia at the G20 Summit in Toronto, as well as a 2.5 metre-long narwhal tusk from Resolute Bay Mayor Aziz Kheraj during Harper's 2007 tour of the North.

"What is more Canadian than a narwhal tusk?" Gelinas said.

"Also, I thought to myself that the prime minister had made a determined and consistent effort throughout his entire tenure in power to express his and the Canadian government's [concern] for northern matters through his northern trips."

Future significance

Curators must think long-term and try to imagine what objects would be seen as significant or interesting in the future.

Gelinas may select items today with no plans to display them but with an eye to research in the distant future. That might apply to his selection of a solid gold coin given to each G-8 leader during a 2009 summit in Italy, symbolizing the idea of a united world currency.

This solid gold coin was presented to each G8 leader during a 2009 summit in Italy. It was meant to symbolize the goal of a united world currency. (CBC News)

"It is not necessarily the epitome of good taste," Gelinas says, but it does represent the possibility "of a united world economically and monetarily."

Canada's Museum of History has political artifacts from almost every prime minister but before the current process was put in place donations were sporadic and ad hoc. One item is a handmade buckskin coat detailed with Métis beadwork that former prime minister Paul Martin received at a 2005 meeting that led to the Kelowna Accord.

"This was a gift to him from two Métis artists in appreciation of his trust and efforts and confidence-building between Canadian society in general and Métis people," says Gelinas.

With that in mind, and with an eye to preserving Canada's political history, Gelinas has already taken note of that traditional star quilt the AFN used to blanket Trudeau earlier this month.

This handmade buckskin coat with Métis beadwork was given to former prime minister Paul Martin during a 2005 meeting in the lead up the Kelowna Accord. Xavier Gelinas, the curator of political history at the Canadian Museum of History, now has it in his collection of items representing the work of former prime ministers. (CBC News)

About the Author

Alison Crawford is a senior reporter in CBC's parliamentary bureau, covering justice, public safety, the Supreme Court and Liberal Party of Canada.


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