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The rich and sobering history of Red Deer’s “Unknown Soldier”

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The origins of Red Deer’s beautiful Cenotaph date back to the end of WWI.  The statue of the Unknown Soldier is a provincial historic site.  In this article, historian and author Michael Dawe helps us understand the rich history of this monument and reminds us all of the sacrifice of our forebearers.  Enjoy the photo gallery showing the changes to the Cenotaph and its surroundings over the years. 

The Cenotaph by Michael Dawe

There are many memorials around the City of Red Deer to honour those who served and those who lost their lives during a time of war. The main community memorial is the Cenotaph, the statue of the Unknown Soldier that stands in the centre of Ross Street in the heart of downtown Red Deer.

The origins of the Cenotaph go back to the end of the First World War. That conflict had been a searing experience for Red Deer. 850 young men and women from the City and surrounding districts had enlisted. Of these, 118 lost their lives. Of those who returned, many had suffered terrible wounds and faced a lifetime of ill health and suffering.  Hence, it was extremely important to the community that a fitting and very special memorial be created.

On December 18, 1918, five weeks after the end of the War, the Central Alberta local of the Great War Veterans Association (forerunner of the Royal Canadian Legion) organized a large public meeting to discuss the creation of such a memorial.  Three proposals were initially made. The first was to construct a pyramidal monument of river cobblestones in the centre of the City. The second was to construct a community hall and recreation facility next to City Hall. The third was to purchase the old Alexandra (Park) Hotel and turn it into a community centre.

After considerable discussion, a fourth proposal was adopted. It was decided to build a monument rather than a community centre.  However, at the suggestion of Lochlan MacLean, it was also decided that this monument be in the form of a statue of a soldier, mounted on a pedestal, rather than a cobblestone pyramid or obelisk.

Major Frank Norbury, an architectural sculptor at the University of Alberta and a veteran of the War, was commissioned to carve the statue. He came up with the concept of carving the Unknown Soldier as he was coming off active duty on the front line. He was to face west, toward home and peace. He was also to be positioned towards the C.P.R. station from which most of the soldiers had left Red Deer for the War.

This latter point was one of the greatest controversies about the Cenotaph. City Council and a few others wanted it in the centre of the City Square (now City Hall Park). However, the majority wanted it facing directly towards the station and in the middle of Ross Street, Red Deer’s busiest thoroughfare, so that it would be a constant reminder of the sacrifices of the War.

Meanwhile, fundraising for the project commenced, but proved quite a challenge. Post-war Red Deer faced one of the worst economic depressions in its history. However, despite the general shortage of money, by the following summer more than half of the $6200 needed had been raised.  Unfortunately, Red Deer City Council decided that given its financial situation, it could not contribute any money to the project. This decision reinforced the opinion of the Memorial Committee that Council’s wish to have the Cenotaph in the middle of the City Square should be ignored.

There were still a lot of hard feelings about that lack of official City participation. Eventually, City Council agreed to build a boulevard in the middle of Ross Street, west of 49 Avenue, as a site for the Cenotaph. A decision was also made to place street lights at either end of that boulevard to provide nighttime illumination of the spot.

There was another debate regarding the proper means of recording the names of those killed in the War. Some wanted tablets placed on the pedestal. However, the Memorial Committee was worried about having a complete and accurate list. Finally, it was agreed to have two scrolls prepared, one with the names of those who had served and one with the names of those who had lost their lives. Both scrolls were put into a copper tube and placed in a cavity in the pedestal.

On September 15, 1922, the Cenotaph was officially unveiled. To the delight of the community, Governor General Lord Byng of Vimy agreed to come and do the honours. Lord Byng was a hero of one of Canada’s most significant military victories, the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Vimy was also a victory that had also come with very heavy loss of life, both locally and nationally.

At the time of the official unveiling, it was reported that the Cenotaph was the first sculpture war memorial in Alberta. Once the official dedication was completed, the monument was placed into trust with the City on behalf of those who had contributed to its creation.

The Cenotaph was rededicated in 1949 to include remembrance of those who served and lost their lives in the Second World War. A plaque signifying that designation was added to the pedestal. After the completion of the new City Hall Park and the Memorial Centre in the early 1950’s. there was a push to relocate the Cenotaph from its location on Ross Street to either the centre of City Hall Park or a new site in front of the Memorial Centre. However, a plebiscite was held in 1953 in which the citizens of Red Deer voted to keep the Cenotaph were it was.

Another plaque was added in 1988 in memory of those who served and died in the Korean Conflict. At the same time, through the efforts of some dedicated members of the public, special lighting was added to ensure that the Cenotaph was highly visible at night.

There were new proposals in the 1990’s to relocate the Cenotaph to City Hall Park. However, Charlie Mac Lean, son of Lochlan MacLean and one of the last surviving people to have actually built the Cenotaph, offered the opinion that he did not think that the monument could be safely relocated.

In 2006, the Cenotaph was extensively cleaned and repaired. City Council then successfully applied to have the Cenotaph designated as a Provincial Historic Site. In 2010-2011, a beautiful Veterans’ Park was created around the Cenotaph, to enhance it and to make it more accessible to the public.  Moreover, eight interpretive panels were created to let people know the full significance of Red Deer’s official war memorial. They give the stories of those who served in the Boer War, First World War, Second World War, Korean Conflict, the Afghanistan War and all the peace-keeping and peace-making missions in which Canadians have been involved.

Lest We Forget.

Michael Dawe

Here are some other local history stories you might enjoy

The Battle of Vimy Ridge Described by Michael Dawe

Armistice Day 11/11/1918 from a Red Deer perspective in pictures and story

 

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City of Red Deer

City Council to hear arguments for and against extending homeless shelter at Cannery Row for 2 more years

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Public Hearing set for Land Use Bylaw amendment for temporary emergency housing

A Public Hearing is now set for January 17, 2022 at 4 p.m. following Council’s approval of first reading of a Land Use Bylaw (LUB) amendment today. The amendment being considered is to allow for continued operations of the temporary emergency housing site at Cannery Row (5239 53 Avenue) until February 1, 2024.

The existing site exception for the temporary emergency housing site expired on September 30, 2021, and it is now operational through an executive order following the declaration of a State of Local Emergency (SOLE) in place up until February 15, 2022.

As part of the Public Hearing process, neighbours within 100 meters of the site will receive a letter from the administration inviting them to submit feedback on the amendment. The general public is also invited to provide feedback in advance or during the Public Hearing. Those wishing to provide feedback during the Public Hearing on January 17, 2022 are invited to attend the online Council meeting at 4 p.m.. Full details on the Public Hearing and how to provide feedback will be uploaded to The City’s site in the coming weeks. Details will be available at www.reddeer.ca/publichearing.

Council received an update on the current emergency housing status in the community on December 1, 2021. Administration had explored all opportunities for relocating the temporary site, but no viable solutions were available. The report outlined the need for full spectrum housing in the city, the goal is to have a permanent purpose-built emergency housing site in Red Deer operational within two years. Funding is in place and steps are underway with the province to make this a reality for the community. A location for the permanent site has not been decided. This Land Use Bylaw amendment would facilitate a temporary emergency housing solution at the current location until the permanent site is operational.

For background information on the temporary emergency housing site, visit www.reddeer.ca/emergencyhousing.

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City of Red Deer

Council to vote on extending emergency temporary housing at Canery Row for two more years

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Council focuses on long-term solution to housing and homelessness

Following a report on the housing and homelessness crisis Red Deer is facing, Council will take the next steps to implementing a diversion plan and securing a temporary solution while the permanent emergency housing site is being built.

“Our primary goal is to end homelessness in our community, and there are a lot of partners required to make that happen. Today, we directed administration to develop a diversion plan to reduce the overall number of people accessing emergency housing services,” Said Mayor Ken Johnston “We are working closely with the Province to get shovels in the ground next Spring to begin construction of a permanent emergency housing site in our community that will not only provide a shelter for those in need, but the resources to get them to a place where they can be housed permanently.”

The City works in partnership with community and government partners to build and implement a responsive, sustainable and well-performing housing and homelessness response that is informed by evidence-based research and best practice. Since given direction from Council to develop a list of site purchase options for a temporary site, great efforts have been made to try and find an alternative site involving commercial realtors and requests for proposals. The list of sites was narrowed from more than 80 possibilities and it resulted in only one viable property: Cannery Row. These decisions will help the community to prioritize permanent shelter

Among the decisions today, Council approved two key recommendations as a step towards solving the emergency housing crisis in Red Deer:

  • Directed administration to develop a diversion plan to reduce the overall number of people accessing emergency housing services, in alignment with the Community Housing & Homelessness Integrated Plan (CHHIP).
  • Direction to bring forward a Land Use Bylaw Amendment to provide temporary emergency housing service at the Cannery Row site for two years for Council’s consideration within three weeks. A date was set for consideration of First Reading on December 6.

“Although the subject of temporary emergency housing has been very public in our community for more than a year, members of Council will go into the Public Hearing with an open mind, and we hope that members of our community and businesses will do the same,” said Mayor Johnston. “In our experience, when considering any amendments to our Land Use Bylaw, the public hearing process can be both emotionally and mentally draining. We will be hearing both support and opposition with personal and professional experiences, and Council will take every piece of the equation into consideration when making our decision.”

The temporary emergency housing site at Cannery Row is currently able to operate following an Emergency Order put in place following the declaration of the State of Local Emergency (SOLE), which was renewed until February 15. Once the SOLE expires or is rescinded, the ability to operate at Cannery Row will also expire, leaving a gap in services for people experiencing homelessness during the winter months if an amendment to the LUB is not approved.

In 2019, the Provincial government announced $7 million to fund a permanent shelter in Red Deer. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed by The City and the Province in November 2020 that outlines mutual intentions for a quality, purpose-built shelter. The location of the permanent site has not been determined.

For background information on the temporary emergency housing site, visit www.reddeer.ca/emergencyhousing.

For more information, please contact:

Corporate Communications
The City of Red Deer

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