Museum of History at 30: Douglas Cardinal remembers

The Museum of History opened officially on June 29, 1989.

Sometime in late 1983, Douglas Cardinal received a visit from two men from Ottawa.

He was working as an architect in Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia at the time and making name for himself with projects such as St. Mary’s Church in Red Deer, the town centre called St. Albert Place and other projects.

He was also evolving an innovative design style, using computer software to really break some boundaries.

The visitors that winter’s day were George MacDonald and William Taylor. The former would be the first CEO of the Museum of Civilization. The latter was his boss and the head of the Museum of Man.

Douglas Cardinal. Photo: Peter Robb

They liked what Cardinal had been doing in the west, he said in an interview with ARTSFILE as what is now known as the Canadian Museum of History marks 30 years.

“They took me out to dinner and wanted to talk about putting together an entry into the competition. It’s very expensive for an architect to enter a competition like that. You have to involve your whole team in the bid.

“They asked me if I would do that.” He demurred. “I felt at the time that people in the East did their own thing and that I probably didn’t have a chance as a westerner.

“They were really quite mad at me.” William Taylor told Cardinal that “I didn’t travel all the way from Ottawa to eat this awful food for nothing.”

That’s when Cardinal realized he had a serious shot at the commission.

He took the shot.

“It was a lot of work and it cost me a lot of time and effort pulling it together, but I’m glad I had the winning entry.”

The view of Parliament Hill from the Museum of History.

He first made the final group of 12 architects and was invited to Ottawa to study the site and to ponder the project.

“They gave us a chauffeur and a secretary and we could go anywhere that we liked. We could ask all the questions we needed to ask and get the answers from the museum.

“They supported us so we could have a feeling for the site and design accordingly.”

Cardinal was struck by the location. The view and the site were, he said, magnificent. It was, he noted, the view of Parliament that was on the back of the $1 bill.

“I remember talking to my elders about the site. They said ‘You have to understand that for you, the building is already there. It just happens to be in the future. You just have to un-conceal it when you walk on the site’.”

He said he realized that the design had to respond to the river and to the Parliament. But it also had to acknowledge the francophone community in Hull who used the site as a park.

“It was important that they have access to the river. If you look at the other buildings in Hull, they are on the river but they are almost like a wall between the francophone community and the anglophone community.

“I wanted to create a portico. That’s why I separated the buildings so there would be a portico and after hours people could still use the site as a park without having to bang on the doors of a building to get to the river.”

He said he treated the whole building as a park with the hardscaping of the river rocks and the soft landscape of the grass and the river.

It would be a people place in Cardinal’s vision.

“I wanted to have the feeling of land and water. Along the river where the rocks are the water has sculpted the rocks. I wanted the building to feel like it was sculpted by the river and the wind like you see in nature.”

He also integrated male and female forms within the organic design “to show we are part of nature.”

The Grand Hall.

This is very much his philosophy of life, as he has evolved it from the teachings of his elders in Alberta.

“I saw that the (Western European) idea of dominion over nature can only lead to the destruction of the environment. That’s why we have global warming. We come from the wrong head space.

“To say we have dominion over nature means we are pretty arrogant.”

By the spring of 1984 he was picked to be the architect for the museum and Cardinal started to get all the required approvals, the last one was from the National Capital Commission.

Once that was done, “Pierre Trudeau called me up” and told him to be in his office at 9 a.m. the next morning.

He brought his models and drawings and the two spent a couple of hours going over every detail.

Trudeau told Cardinal that he understood the building because he was a canoeist. He could feel how the building related to the water and then he told Cardinal “‘I think it is most appropriate to the site’.”

The former prime minister also said that he liked the portico that connected Ontario and Quebec.

After talking for a couple of hours, Trudeau knew the building inside out, and then he walked into the cabinet room and presented it.

Cardinal could hear the deliberations because he was in the next room. He said Trudeau told his ministers “isn’t that great? Let’s approve it.”

His cabinet told Trudeau that the museum was not budgeted.

“He said to them, ‘I have been thinking this over and we are all at a cold war with Russia and Russia is only a threat to itself. I don’t see the point of spending so much on warfare.

“What I would like to do is take a frigate from the minister of defence’s budget and put it on the Ottawa River and make it the national museum.”

The minister was Jean Jacques Blais at the time. Cardinal heard him say to Trudeau “Prime Minister we made commitments and Trudeau said to him, ‘Well, that’s true, but do you want for the people of Canada to have a frigate resting in some far off sea somewhere no good for anybody and any Canadian citizen? Or do you want that frigate to be here on the Ottawa River as the national museum. Go out and see the model.”

The minister came out to the room where all models were, looked at them and went back into the cabinet meeting and said, “You’re right Prime Minister, it’s better to spend the money on a national museum than a frigate.” And it was done.

Trudeau came out of the cabinet room and told Cardinal “we start construction tomorrow.”

Trudeau was a man in a hurry, but this put a lot of pressure on Cardinal whose buildings had to be built on a computer to exact dimensions.

“I think he knew he was leaving soon. He resigned after there were five cranes on the job and the structure was up.”

Cardinal said that Trudeau wanted to create symbols of nationhood. He wanted to build a new constitution to enshrine rights, a new gallery to enshrine the arts and a new museum to enshrine all the cultures of Canada.

As a westerner he wasn’t in tune with Trudeau’s policies, “but as a client he was just amazing. He gave next government a fait accompli. He set up a Crown corporation called the  Canada Museums Construction Corporation with its own budget.”

Cardinal then worked 16 hours a day for five years on the project.

“It totally sucked all my time and all my energy. We were designing and building at the same time. It was crazy. People were standing there with trowels in their hands waiting for the next drawing.”

“It was called fast tracking and we were always one step ahead of the contractor.”

There were complaints that it was over budget, but Cardinal says that was not true.

He said he believes the Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney didn’t want the project to be successful because it was Trudeau’s vision.

But Cardinal had allies in the Tory cabinet including Joe Clark, and Flora MacDonald. As well the Alberta caucus including Don Mazankowski and Harvie Andre backed the project. Another ally would be the governor-general of the day Jeanne Sauve.

The Albertans were proud that a fellow Albertan was designing such an important building, he said. Still there were a lot of “sidewalk superintendents” walking over from The Hill to check on the project.

The simple fact that Douglas Cardinal designed this building based on a philosophy that enshrines the teachings of his elders makes it a symbol of the Indigenous peoples.

He believes Trudeau felt the same way.

“It was the vision of the elders,” he said. “When I finished the museum, the elders came from Alberta and one said to another, ‘How can this come out of one mind’. The other elder said ‘It didn’t come out of his mind, it was given to him by the grandfathers’. The other said, ‘Of course’.”

“They wanted to see. They felt was an expression of the people. I still feel that way. It was a vision we had together. It was very important to make that statement that we are part of nature.

“To have a voice of the land embodied in the building opens it to every culture that is here.”

The building speaks to that, Cardinal believes.

It certainly works. The museum is the most visited building in Canada regularly surpassing a million visitors every year.

Cardinal has been back many times, most recently leading an exhibition of Indigenous architecture called Unceded into the museum.

He took part in the design of the new history hall in the museum that opened in 2017.

He also appreciates working wth the current CEO Mark O’Neill, who called Cardinal the greatest living elder.

“He has a sensitivity to the space. He had me put together a book listing all the design principles. Before that people were making changes to the design that did not reflect the original intention.” The book is published and available in the museum store.

When the museum opened on June 29, 1989, Cardinal said he was happy “to see all the people.”

Before opening day George MacDonald gave me the opportunity to have a private party for the people who had made it happen like Pierre Trudeau and many Indigenous people who hadn’t been invited the the official opening.

“Later Mulroney asked if the Indigenous people would stay on for the grand opening. I asked them and they said they would.”

Finally during the ceremony, Mulroney “called me to the Grand Hall. He was  standing there in the centre of it. When I came up to him he reached out his hand and said, ‘For this beautiful space and this project I truly exonerate you’. I said ‘Thank you Prime Minister.’

“I was in trouble with him for not going along with his ideas.” But he fought the good fight and won.

The museum attracted international attention after the opening including David Rockefeller who was so impressed he invited Cardinal to a meeting at Rockefeller Centre in New York where he encouraged him to enter the competition for a project that would become the National Museum of the American Indian.

Thirty years is not a long time in the life of a public building. This one will last lifetimes, he said, continuing to make a powerful statement on the shores of the timeless Ottawa River for generations to come.

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.