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.
Here are some other local history stories you might enjoy
Red Deer is Canada’s most active community. Celebrate with free activities at the Collicutt Centre!
News release from the Red Deer Primary Care Network
Residents are invited to celebrate Red Deer winning the Community Better ParticipACTION Challenge and the title of the “Most Active Community” in Canada.
October 15, 2022, Collicutt Centre
In June, Red Deer Residents participated in the ParticipACTION Community Better Challenge.
This challenge saw our citizens and community organizations tracking over 19 million minutes of physical activity. We had over 700 community members and 35 community organizations showing a total of 153,010 people participating in organized community events and tracking their activity on the ParticipACTION app or website.
This support by our community helped Red Deer WIN the title of Canada’s Most Active Community. Along with the title we received the $100,000 grand prize to be put back into our community to stay active and healthy.
As recognition and to thank everyone for their efforts and celebrate this victory, we welcome all Red Deer citizens to join us at that the Collicutt Centre on October 15th, 2022, from 12:00- 3:00pm.
There will be a warm welcome address by Mayor Johnston between 12:00-12:15pm followed by FREE Swimming, Skating and activities in the Field House for everyone to participate in. There will also be the opportunity to connect with community organizations showcasing their services on mainstreet in the Collicutt.
City still working out details of homeless shelter site with Province of Alberta
City and Province of Alberta continue discussion about potential site for future shelter in Red Deer
While The City had hoped to be in a position to release its recommended site today, further considerations pertaining to the recommended site are being jointly explored by the Province and City to ensure its suitability prior to publicly disclosing any information about a potential site.
“We know our community has been patiently waiting for us to identify the potential future shelter site in our city; this is a big decision, and we must ensure that we are making the best decision possible for our community – and that we are making that decision in good faith and partnership with our provincial colleagues,” said Mayor Johnston. “We are continuing to move forward with our provincial partners, and we want to have a decision for our community very soon.”
The narrowing of potential sites comes on the heels of an extensive site selection process that initially included 96 sites. The selection process also involved intensive public participation with more than 820 participants engaging with The City about the project. These participants included residents, businesses, social agencies, and people with lived or living experience of homelessness.
“I am proud to be working closely with the City of Red Deer to ensure that we are aligned on a shelter model and location that is best for Red Deer. We will continue to work closely together in collaboration to improve the support we offer homeless people in Red Deer and make the community safer as a whole,” said Jason Luan, Minister of Community and Social Services
“Alberta’s government remains committed to providing $7 million in capital funding to support the Red Deer integrated emergency shelter. We will continue to plan and work with community partners and the city to address the need for a larger, more functional space to meet demand. Our shared objective is to ensure Red Deer residents in need have access to a safe, accessible overnight shelter,” said Josephine Pon, Minister of Seniors and Housing
“Selecting the right site for Red Deer requires pragmatic innovation that meets our joint vision for an integrated shelter in our community, and we will continue to work alongside the province, social support agencies and citizens throughout the entire process to re-envision the future shelter as a place that provides the support our vulnerable population requires on their journey to being housed,” said Johnston.
During a closed meeting on September 12, 2022, Red Deer City Council selected a potential site for the future shelter; upon presenting the site to the province as part of the site selection process, it was identified that further analysis is needed prior to public disclosure of the site.
As more information is publicly available, it will be shared through The City’s website at www.reddeer.ca/shelter.
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