The Fernie Cenotaph is the most beautiful, poignant and memorable piece of public art in Fernie. The sculpture and pedestal are harmonious and their proportions are suited to the Fernie Court House and garden which are surrounded by one of the most remarkable settings possible for a cenotaph. The sculpture seems to be guarded from the rear by justice as symbolized by the court building. To the right when facing the sculpture are the solid arches of the Romanesque style Catholic church and down the street the Anglican church and what once was the Baptist, now Lutheran church. Kitty corner to the left is what remains of the Methodist church and surrounding on each block are some of the lovely heritage houses that housed the mayors and wealthiest citizens of Fernie. It is almost as though the soldier on his pedestal, his head bowed from all this grandeur is indicting church, state, commerce and industry. Towering over the scene are the mountains: the Three Sisters like three great protective mothers standing together surrounded by an honour guard of Mt. Fernie, Proctor and Hosmer Mountains. The Lizard Range like a great protective fortress and Castle Mountain a watch tower. It is a remarkable synthesis of art and nature.
The sculpture is not a memorial to war as are many other cenotaphs across Canada (which feature some sort of paraphernalia of war, a young soldier in military action often with bayonet in hand about to throw a grenade, or some sort of regalia of state). The Fernie Cenotaph is a memorial to the sorrows caused by war. The young man bows his head in ache for all the dead men, women and children caused by war. His face shows the torment caused when the need for power out values the need for people to live happy and safe lives.
Recorded on the pedestal on which stands the sad handsome young soldier are the names of all the soldiers from Fernie who died in war. One cannot help wonder how much greater his sorrow would be to know that names continued to be added.
The design for the sculpture was created, ironically and in a way that is ultimately fitting for a country like Canada, by a German-Canadian sculptor, Emmanuel Hahn. Hahn designed a large number of Canadian war memorials. In 1925 he won the commission for best design of the proposed Winnipeg War Memorial. When it was discovered he was of German background he was fired (though allowed to keep the prize money). In the competition to replace Hahn a Canadian born woman, noted sculptor Elizabeth W. Wood won next. It was then discovered that she was married to Hahn (she worked creatively under her maiden name) and she too was fired. (So much for the lessons of the Great War).
The sculpture is both unique and not: Hahn’s design for the grieving soldier was used in a number of cenotaphs throughout Canada, including in Westville and Spring Hill Nova Scotia; Fort William and Petrolia Ontario; and Unity Saskatchewan. Though the design for each of these sculptures is the same, each is unique, either because of the material used (some are cast and some are carved from stone – in Fernie’s case granite) or because of the way the sculpture is mounted or situated. Perhaps it is my local bias but somehow the sculpture resonates with sorrow most profoundly in Fernie.
The sculpture was a very expensive undertaking for post World War One Fernie and I have found a quotation in the Fernie Free Press of August 4, 1922 outlining the cost and some the initiatives around the fund raising for the Memorial:
“When the Reconstruction Committee holds its meeting on Monday next the report of the treasurer will show that slightly over $15,000 has been collected in this city and the district for the establishment of permanent memorials. The order has been placed for the two shafts to perpetuate the memory of those who made the supreme sacrifice. One of these will be erected on the court house grounds, the other in the Soldier’s plot at the cemetery. The cost upon completion of these two memorials will be in the neighborhood of $10,000, leaving something above $5,000 remaining in the Memorial Fund. There are also other funds of approximately $4500 which have been created through the efforts of hard-working public-spirited citizens who have had as their object the establishment of permanent recreation quarters for the children. This fund is known as the Children’s Fund and it would seem that nothing could be more fitting than to consolidate the residue of the memorial fund with that of the Children’s Fund, which would amount to over $10,000 as a nucleus of a fund for the construction of a suitable building which could be made to embody all the necessary requirements of the returned man and also provide a more commodious and suitable edifice for the use of the children. The scheme has already been favored by a large number of influential citizens and it is hoped something of this nature is decided upon when the committee has its meeting early next week.”
This was confirmed an article in the Toronto Star dated 25 July 1925 entitled “Canada’s War Memorials Have Cost Three Millions” in which the Fernie Memorial joins a list of other memorials. The Star included a list of the cost per memorial. Not every memorial in Canada is listed, but for the Memorials that Emmanuel Hahn designed the costs provided were as follows:
Fernie, B.C. – $10,000
Fort William – $7,000
Gaspe, Quebec – $5,000
Petrolia, Ont. – $5,000
Westville, NS – $6,000
Cornwall, ON – $10,000
To put this into perspective it has to be remembered that $10,000 then was worth, in today’s dollars, between $150,000 and $300,000. The range is due to differences in valuation of a 1922 dollar in today’s values; but it is evident that the community raised a great deal of money in order to build the memorial – one wonders if such a fund raising venture for a piece of art would be possible today.
Interestingly the Fernie Free Press article refers to another memorial for the soldier’s plot at the Fernie cemetery and I hope to find out more for another posting.
The sculpture of the grieving soldier has been important to me since I was a child. In those days I played on the lawn beneath what I thought was his tear stained face, though perhaps it was only the rain running down his cheeks that I saw. I have always been drawn to him and never fail to stop to look at him when I walk past. To me his sorrowful gaze is about healing and reconciliation and this is what I hoped to show readers in a story I wrote entitled “Mittens” (What Echo Heard). I hope that you too will find both comfort and joy when you stop and take the time to look at and ponder the beautiful sad soldier of Fernie’s Cenotaph.