By: Scott Taylor, January 2016 (Volume 22, Issue 12)
It began as a simple suggestion at a post-Michener Award reception at Rideau Hall. Upon discovering that I published a military magazine, hostess Her Excellency Sharon Johnston, wife of Governor General David Johnston, asked if I would be interested in the new art exhibits that were recently installed at CFB Petawawa. I replied to the effect that, as the son of an artist, the husband of an artist and a graduate of the Ontario College of Art and Design myself, art is always a subject near and dear to me.
Unlike most notions discussed during late evening cocktail receptions, the communications staff at Rideau Hall followed up with me the next day. The nucleus of the story was that while on a formal visit to CFB Petawawa, Mrs. Johnston had noticed that the walls of the various headquarters buildings displayed nothing but dull bureaucratic austerity.
Like most CAF bases, the majority of offices at CFB Petawawa are adorned with clipboards detailing routine orders and framed photographs of Canadian military personnel and equipment circa 1970. There is also a mandatory rogues’ gallery of portraits in most headquarters’ foyers, reminding loiterers just who is who in the chair of command, starting with the Queen and working its way down to the individuals presently in command of that very HQ.
While such an official ambience has its place in bustling command centres, Mrs. Johnston recognized that, for those personnel suffering from the unseen mental wounds of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bleak military surroundings might be counterproductive to the healing process. Thus, the idea was hatched to connect the Joint Personnel Support Unit (JPSU) with the Canada Council Art Bank.
The Art Bank is a repository of paintings, photographs and sculptures produced by some of the finest artists in Canada. Normally, these works are loaned out to senior bureaucrats and politicians to decorate their offices. The concept being that, in this way, top Canadian art will be appreciated by visiting dignitaries.
However, even with frequent rotation, the truth is that the vast majority of the Art Bank’s collection remains unseen and unappreciated in the storage vaults. Therefore, the notion that the work of Canadian artists could be used to brighten up the facilities of Canadian soldiers attempting to recover could only be seen as a win–win.
Of course, no great idea can be implemented without navigating the bureaucratic red tape: insurance details need to be worked out, sponsorship needs to be found to cover installation costs, etc. In the end, former military police officer Captain K.B. Lamorie, commander of the JPSU at CFB Petawawa, was on his way down Highway 17 to Ottawa to start selecting art pieces.
“We were after art that has no military connection,” Capt Lamorie explained. “Instead, we wanted it to reflect Canada and Canadians.”
In total, Lamorie selected some 80 pieces — painting and sculptures — valued at approximately $84,000. The result is that the JPSU office and the adjacent transition centre are, without a doubt, the artsiest government buildings in the history of the Canadian military.
Of course, many of the regimental messes and armouries are decorated with copious battlefield paintings and the two Petawawa galleries feature abstracts and fish portraits.
At the time of our visit, Capt Lamorie had 131 personnel attached to his JPSU. On average, 15 per cent of those soldiers will heal to the point where they can return to active duty, while the other 85 per cent will be slowly transitioned into the civilian world.
This transition is now being made far simpler for soldiers with counsellors from Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) working inside the transition centre. Until recently, retiring soldiers had to completely clear out of the military system before beginning any pension applications with VAC. Now, that gap has been closed and, with luck, will prevent a lot of future retirees with disabilities and unseen wounds from slipping into the abyss.
No system is perfect, of course, and many soldiers are more damaged than when first diagnosed. “We have soldiers that simply cannot face the prospect of coming on to the base,” explained Capt Lamorie. “In those cases, we have to reach out and visit them in neutral territory.”
World-class Canadian paintings and sculptures will not cure the mental anguish suffered by our broken soldiers, but every gesture that demonstrates a caring nation is bound to help the healing.