Statement made on 03 February 2009 by Senator Jerahmiel Grafstein (retired)
Hon. Jerahmiel S. Grafstein:
Honourable senators — this comment I address to old and new senators alike — I was taken by the statements of the senator from New Brunswick about energy, commitment, consistency and going against popular opinion.
Here, we have a bill that is popular, but still we have resistance in Parliament to pass this measure. This matter is not new; it has been before Parliament since 2003. There is no question in my mind that the public wants this measure to be adopted, but there is a resistance in Parliament, in government, I think for political egotism.
People like to take credit for issues, but when they cannot take credit, they like to defer or change them. Each legacy of each government is somehow deferred by the succeeding government and refashioned. We have that situation here. Meanwhile, the public interest suffers.
Let me start by quoting from the bill itself. It is not complicated; it is simple.
Bill S-201 calls for an amendment to the Library and Archives of Canada Act and:
17.1(1) In furtherance of its objects, the Library and Archives of Canada shall establish a permanent display of portraits and works related to portraiture from its collection, including paintings, sketches, sculptures or photographs.
(2) The permanent display established under subsection (1) shall be known as the National Portrait Gallery, and shall be accessible to the public.
(3) The National Portrait Gallery shall be located at 100 Wellington Street in the city of Ottawa.
Honourable senators, genius is sometimes defined as a penetrating glimpse into the obvious. What is so obvious about establishing a National Portrait Gallery across the street from the most well-known buildings in Canada, the Parliament Buildings?
There is an empty building across the street from Parliament that has been in the public domain since the Americans vacated it almost a decade ago. Mr. Chrétien's government established the Portrait Gallery of Canada in that building seven or eight years ago. Twenty million dollars was spent in maintaining the building and establishing an international competition for the design plans. Those plans were paid for by the current government.
There is a treasure trove — the largest collection of art and sculpture across the river in the hands of the Canadian government at Library and Archives Canada. However, the problem is that only a handful of Canadians have seen the collection. I invite each new senator to go across the river and examine the works themselves in the archives.
When I went there a decade ago, I was told I was only the fourth parliamentarian — and only one minister — to have visited this collection. Go across the river. Take a $5 cab ride and you will find an unbelievable treasure trove.
We have an opportunity. We have heard senators on the other side promoting the action plan. We have the opportunity to take some of this infrastructure money — a few pennies, $1.50 per Canadian — and establish a national portrait gallery right across the street. It is easy to do. It is all set to go. Jobs can be created. The shovels can be in the ground. It can all be started within a month.
If the government is serious about its action plan to develop something, this will not only create jobs, but it will create tourism in the city. It will be available not only to Canadians that visit the Parliament Buildings and Ottawa, but it will available across the country.
I take some ownership, but not credit for this idea. It has been in creative and cultural circles for years. When the building was vacated, I joined forces with Senator Joyal, who happens to be one of Canada's outstanding art experts. We took it upon ourselves to look at portrait galleries around the world and we determined that a national portrait gallery should be located in Canada. We are one of the few countries in the world that does not have a national portrait gallery in its national capital region.
When the embassy was vacated, we thought it would be an ideal location. We took the idea to Prime Minister Chrétien and after some time, we persuaded him and his cabinet colleagues — it was a selling job — to promote and establish the national portrait gallery across the street.
Bill S-201 itself is simple, but there is a more important element that this bill provides. It is our view on this side that a matter of such importance — particularly in a minority government — should be left to Parliament for a vote in both houses to determine whether the measure I propose in this bill is acceptable to the people's Parliament. Let Parliament decide. Let the government and the whips go away and let the government decide.
The governance plan was scrapped. The government had a plan. When Mr. Harper came to office, he scrapped Mr. Chrétien's plan, left the building vacant and set up a bidding process. However, the bidding process was unfair. Canada is a house of regions and the bidding process was unfair to certain regions of the country. When the bidding took place, certain regions were excluded.
Senator Segal: Did Prime Minister Martin or Prime Minister Harper stop the process?
Senator Grafstein: It was Prime Minister Harper.
Mr. Chrétien passed the measure and money was allocated, but the money was not implemented as quickly as we would have liked. When Mr. Harper's government came along, he scrapped the proposal and set up a bidding process. Mercifully, intelligently and thoughtfully, Minister Moore scrapped the process because it was flawed and would not work.
Now, we are back to the status quo. This opens up a tabular asset for the Senate to pass this measure, send it over to the other place and let both houses decide if this is a good idea. I believe it is.
The proposed location for the portrait gallery is at 100 Wellington Street, right across the street. That building happens to be one of the most beautiful art deco buildings, not only in this area, but in the country. Over $20 million has been spent already in preparation, inventory and organization. Millions more will be spent in simply maintaining the building. We have heard through the rumour mill that the government may use the building as a visitors' centre or a venue for the Prime Minister to entertain international guests.
I believe the Prime Minister should entertain our guests. The United States has Blair House in Washington. However, this fabulous building is not the place for entertaining. There are other spaces readily available. A space for entertainment is available at the old Union Station down the street. This building is unique. I do not believe we should let this opportunity pass us by.
Honourable senators, think about this question. I turn to our great colleagues, experts from the media here. We have Senator Munson, Senator Duffy and others. Think of this, honourable senators. These senators were reporters and would stand on the Hill every night opining and in the background was the Parliament Buildings. All we would have to do is ask the good offices of Senator Munson and Senator Duffy to request that their former colleagues turn the camera around once a week and instead of the Parliament Buildings in the background, we would have the national portrait gallery of Canada in the background.
We would get hundreds of millions of dollars of tax-free advertising for that building and it would become, within a few weeks, the second most noted building in Canada. It is easy to do at no cost to the taxpayer.
Senator Duffy, I urge you to think about that. Senator Munson, I urge you to think about that. Senator Wallin is not here, but I urge her to think about that as well.
Honourable senators, this project is accountable; it is cost effective; it does not lose any money. It is consistent with what we have been told by the Harper government over and over again: be cheap and frugal.
I am a frugal senator; I do not believe in wasting taxpayers' money. However, we would be wasting taxpayers' money if we chose not to allow Canadians to view this unbelievable treasure trove of paintings and scrap the plan that is nearly half paid.
Cities such as Calgary or Edmonton are objecting to being cut out of this project. The answer to that is no, they are not. I believe that with virtual reality and large, high definition television screens, every gallery in Canada that wishes to invest a few thousand dollars would be able to see the exhibits every week. When a new exhibit takes place in the new national portrait gallery, all other galleries will have to do is turn on a camera and send it across the country. Every school, university and museum, in every corner of the country, would have access to this treasure trove through virtual reality.
How easy it is to do. It also would be revenue producing. I say this to the new senators in particular, as we walk through the halls of Parliament; I am delighted to see schoolchildren and tourists. We have between 750,000 and one million tourists flowing through this building each year. However, when they leave Parliament Hill, there is no place to go within walking distance. All they would have to do is walk across the street. I guarantee that within a year or two, it would be the most visited portrait gallery and the most visited museum in Canada. This is at no additional cost to the taxpayer or to the tourism bureau. It would be there available for them and they would be able to see a visual history of our country, of which we are currently deprived.
I have visited the National Portrait Gallery in London. It is a jewel of a building around the corner from Grosvenor Square. That lovely building has been modernized. The National Portrait Gallery in London has parliamentarians on one floor, royalty on another floor and on additional floors are people from business and the arts community. It represents a portrait of the United Kingdom. It is not just limited to a certain class.
There is an unbelievable collection of portraits of Aboriginal peoples and people of First Nations at the National Archives that no one has seen. This gallery would give us a greater and broader sense of this country.
When one is finished at the National Portrait Gallery in London, one can punch a button and get any portrait in a poster size for a couple of pounds. If we create a modernized national portrait gallery, as Senator Joyal and I envisage, when kids decide they want to get a portrait of a great poet or prime minister, they can punch a button and get a poster. There would be a revenue stream from that. This would not be a cost for the federal government. The users of the gallery and the people who wish to purchase these posters would produce revenue for the government and ultimately the process would be almost revenue-neutral.
A national portrait gallery would not be a costly venture. It would introduce more tourism, more attention and attraction, not only to the national portrait gallery but to the artists as well.
I have one personal story I wish to relate. When I first came to Ottawa, I encountered one of the world's greatest photographers, who lived and had his studio at the Château Laurier. His name was Yousuf Karsh. Many honourable senators will have seen that most famous of all photographs, the picture of Winston Churchill. That picture was taken in the Speaker's chamber in the other place. Yousuf Karsh, the story goes, took away Churchill's cigar, he pouted, and that was the picture. If you go to the Château Laurier — and some new senators live there, as I do — you will find a number of portraits of Yousuf Karsh in the antechamber. You will see Hemingway. You will see Riopelle. You will see Pablo Casals. We have the greatest photographic heritage in the world; and who owns it? The Archives of Canada has it. Yousuf Karsh dedicated his entire collection of photography to that body. Canadians have it. The collection has never been seen in its totality. It could be seen. It could be on the Web. It could be a revenue producer.
I know that Yousuf Karsh, whom I met and with whom I spent some time, would be turning over in his grave if he felt that his contribution to Canada and to the world was never seen by Canadians. His intention was to dedicate that collection to Canada so that Canadians could benefit from it and be proud that they could count as one of their own one of the greatest photographers in the world.
Honourable senators, this is a no-brainer.
The Hon. the Speaker: I regret to inform the honourable senator that his time has expired.
Hon. Gerald J. Comeau (Deputy Leader of the Government): I would request five more minutes, honourable senators.
Senator Grafstein: After 10 years, 10 minutes might be more useful.
Senator Prud'homme, I have listened to you for 20 years. You can give me another 10 more minutes.
Honourable senators, this is a no-brainer.
Let me share one final story. The visual artists in this country do not have a lobby. We in the Senate are familiar with cultural lobbies. Cultural lobbyists such as television producers came to us, and week after week we saw that strong lobby before a committee of the Senate. We opined and we changed a provision to benefit the television producers of this country. Hallelujah, I say. It was a controversial issue. That was a powerful lobby group.
We have big oil, big business, big universities, big research institutes. We have big, big interests, but the visual artists of this country, who work from project to project, do not have the money to form a lobby. However, they have come to me. I have met with them in my office several times. They are artists who want to contribute their art to the country. Two women in particular, with tears in their eyes, said to me: "Look, senator, I might be Van Gogh. My stuff has not been sold, but maybe in the future, like Van Gogh, someone will see my work and I will live on in the hearts and minds of Canadians. Please make sure this gallery takes place because I intend to dedicate all my work to the National Archives and to the national portrait gallery." That is a heart-rending and factual story.
I call upon honourable senators in the spirit of cooperation, which we have now heard about on the other side, in the spirit of intelligence, in the spirit of obviousness, in the spirit of sense and sensibility, to pass this measure quickly. Let us convince our colleagues on the other side that this is a no-brainer. Let us get this done. Let us do something great for Canada. Let us create in this chamber a new visual history for our country.
I urge honourable senators to pass this bill speedily and pass it over to the other house.