By Marie Zettler
Weatmeath — Whitewater Region council has voted to reverse an earlier decision to move its cenotaph from its present location adjacent to the ball field at the arena to a small park — or “parkette” — being constructed on the main street.
The decision to exclude the cenotaph from the plans for the new amenity was made at a special meeting of council on June 23. The meeting was called by Mayor Mike Moore at the request of Councillor Neil Nicholson, who as chair of the township’s Parks and Recreation Committee was one of the principal operatives in establishing the new parkette.
Coun. Nicholson told his fellow council members he did not ask for the special meeting with any preconceived notions about the outcome.
“But after deliberating I felt there is sufficient new information to warrant reconsidering the plan,” he said. “I am no longer in support of moving the cenotaph. There is much less community support (for the move) than I had believed.”
Members of council have been on the receiving end of a barrage of complaints about the proposed move, and about the fact there had been no formal public consultation process before the decision was made. An email to Coun. Nicholson signed by a local resident and community volunteer, Margarit Gervais, who said she was passing along questions from “people not comfortable expressing their concerns,” asked why the township made the decision without community input when funding to construct the cenotaph, at a cost of $13,758.84, had been donated by 145 families.
“Many indicated that a public meeting should have been held and the consensus of the majority should have made the decision, not the township,” said the letter. “With COVID that wasn’t possible, so the decision should have been deferred until people could meet to make an informed decision.”
A longer and more formal letter, again signed by Mrs. Gervais, was sent to Whitewater Region council and staff and also provided to local media for publication. It spoke of a lack of respect for those who had contributed money and volunteer hours, and noted the cenotaph’s location had been chosen deliberately.
“We chose this location to honour our brave men because the community centre has been the gathering place for all of our community events for years,” said the letter. “Every time we hold a community event, the cenotaph serves as a visible reminder that there was a heavy price to pay in order for us to enjoy the freedom to gather and celebrate together that we have.”
It also expressed the fear that other communities will not be consulted about future changes.
“The lack of consultation begs the question of what the real motive for moving this monument was,” said the letter. “It speaks to backroom deals and hidden agendas to satisfy the wants of some members in the township. It completely goes against the very definition of democracy.
“The process in this decision making is an example of failed municipal government,” the letter concluded.
The idea for the parkette evolved from an offer by the previous owner of the property on which it is situated, Dr. Marian Laderoute, to donate the lot to the township. The property, on the north-east side of the intersection of Gore Line and Rapid Road in the hamlet of Westmeath, is, by today’s standards, too small to be approved for the construction of a home. There was once a house there, but it was demolished some time ago, leaving the property to become overgrown with Manitoba maples and other invasive vegetation.
Dr. Laderoute, who has roots in Westmeath but now lives in Gatineau, approached the municipality in January 2020, offering to donate the property in exchange for a receipt for the appraised value of the land, and on the conditions that it remain designated permanently for recreational use only and that a plaque be placed bearing the Boyer and Laderoute names. The original family name was Boyer when the family’s ancestors arrived at Quebec City in 1641, but the name Laderoute was also used and eventually the Boyer name was dropped.
Subsequently township staff approached council with the possibility of relocating the cenotaph to this location which was thought to be more accessible and visible to the general public. It now stands on municipal property backing onto the community’s ball field, and fronting on Synton Street across from the arena and fire hall. Synton Street intersects with Jessie Street. An auto repair garage is located on Jessie Street across from the west side of the cenotaph area.
A report prepared by the township’s planner, Ivan Burton and presented to council February 5, 2020, notes that a parkland provision in the Recreation Master Plan recommends that a park be within walking distance of all population centres. There is currently no access to green space in Westmeath other than the ball park.
In investigating funding options, township staff learned of a grant available from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) for up to 50 per cent of eligible expenditure not exceeding $25,000 for projects related to the construction, restoration, or expansion of a community war memorial.
The concept plan for the parkette, including the cenotaph relocation, was presented to council at its May 20, 2020 meeting.
The naming of the parkette was subject to public notice and was advertised in local newspapers in the summer of 2020. No comments were received. On April 21, 2021, council approved the commemorative naming of the park.
The parkette was constructed with a concrete pad for the cenotaph, an accessible asphalt walkway from the street to a loop which curves past the proposed location for the cenotaph, trees and shrubs, and two benches. An existing mature silver maple was preserved, and there is provision for a now 30 cm high Vimy Oak to be relocated from the present cenotaph site. Vimy Oaks are descendants of acorns gathered after the 1917 Battle of Vimy Ridge by a Canadian soldier and planted in Canada.
Whitewater CAO Robert Tremblay told councilors at the June 23 meeting that to say there had been no consultation with the community was not 100 per cent accurate.
“The chair of Parks and Recreation (Coun. Nicholson) met with the abutting landowners, Kenny’s Store, and the Pentecostal Church,” he said. The church and store are on opposite corners of the same intersection as the park. He also met with two community members involved with the cenotaph, and discussed the concept at a meeting of the Westmeath and District Recreation Association.
Coun. Nicholson said the two cenotaph volunteers neither spoke for or against the proposal and said they didn’t want to speak for everyone.
“We planned some form of community outreach but then COVID came and we had no more breakfasts at the hall or activities in the rink, and we had no way to meet with community members and have them debate and share ideas,” he said. “I had lots of informal engagements with community members and there was lots of positive feedback. Overall the idea was well received. I realize now that my sense of the feeling did not represent the voices that subsequently came forward. In my eagerness to take advantage of the funding (available) I completely missed the step of obtaining community input.”
He said one could argue that council meetings are on public view (live streamed and also available on YouTube after the fact).
“But I have doubts that people follow our agendas on a regular basis,” he said. “There is much less community support than I had believed.”
He conceded that cancelling the move for the cenotaph will be costly, in terms of the loss of the $25,000 grant to help pay for the total tender costs of $85,734 including HST plus consultant services.
“But I feel we have to accept some increased cost for not getting the community’s feedback right on this project,” he said.
Reeve Cathy Regier asked how the loss of the grant will impact the cost of completing the parkette without moving the monument.
“The actual cost to move the monument would only be about $1,000,” said CAO Tremblay. “We will have to source $24,000 to complete the parkette.”
He added that using the concrete base for some other purpose, such as a shade structure, would come as an additional cost.
Councillor Chris Olmstead said he received over 50 emails and phone calls from people objecting to moving the cenotaph.
“We got it wrong, period,” he said. “Two of the messages I got had a threatening tone and that doesn’t do anything for me. But if we change, the decision is final, in my opinion. If people decide later they want it moved, it’s not moving. That ship has sailed. Council has been through the wringer. There’s something wrong with people who just want to attack.”
Councillor Charlene Jackson said “we always hear from the negative people.”
“It’s the squeaky wheel that’s heard,” she said. “People in favour of something are too quiet.”
Reeve Regier asked if the grant could be repurposed, perhaps to improve the current location of the monument.
Mr. Tremblay said the grant application was specific to the park under development.
“The grant has to be returned,” he said.
He added the cenotaph committee still has $7,000 in its bank account which hasn’t been touched since 2014 which could be used if any improvements to the current site were needed.
Coun. Nicholson moved that the cenotaph be left where it is and that no additional money beyond the contracted obligations be spent at this time for improvements such as a shade structure. The motion passed on a 5-2 recorded vote.
Now that the word is out about the decision, people who were in favour of moving the cenotaph are already voicing their dismay.
John Meadows said he and his wife, Rose, were looking forward to the completion of the project.
“(It would have given) our fallen a place of distinction, rather than a back street wedged between a group of broken down cars waiting for repair and an outside toilet,” he said. “We certainly did not know this was being opposed, otherwise we would have stated our opinions. We cannot understand the opposition, other than it has been there for so long and tradition prevails.”
He felt the new parkette, at the busiest intersection in Westmeath and across the street from the hamlet’s general store, would have been a very appropriate place for the monument.
“Nothing would have pleased me more than youngsters with their bicycles eating ice cream cones as they read the names engraved on the cenotaph,” he said.
He said both he and his wife are offspring of fathers who fought overseas in World War 2, and take their memory and sacrifice seriously.
“We come from proud military families, and there are not just emotional but physical scars,” he said. “We had it drilled into us to go to the cenotaph on Remembrance Day. It was at the cenotaph that I, for the first time, saw my father cry. When we attend the cenotaph for the service we pay homage to all the Canadian fallen, not just the engraved names.”
He deplores the lack of consensus, and said he finds it “vexing” to be told that his opinion matters less than those who have established and maintained the monument.
“I appreciate the work of the volunteers, but it does not give them ownership or make my opinion less valuable than theirs,” he said.
He added he has good friends on both sides of the controversy and hopes that strength of character will allow the friendships to continue.
Council is scheduled to explore options to make up the funding shortfall resulting from the loss of the grant at its regular meeting today, July 7.