By Olivia Ward|
Toronto Star European Bureau
`National emblem' reopens in London on Wednesday
See also Canada House Re-opening Backgrounder.
LONDON - A couple of decades ago, admitting you were Canadian in London was like turning up at a trendy restaurant in a square-dancing costume: quaint, sort of cute, but terminally uncool.
The past few years have changed all that.
Edgy Atom Egoyan movies, celebrated prize-winning books, the British Columbia-originated cult hit X-Files, intellectual icons Michael Ignatieff and Michael Ondaatje, pop queen k.d. lang and dozens of other symbols of turn-of-the-century Canada have moved the Big Icicle light years past the days when adventurous Brits crossed the ocean to view the Mounties' Musical Ride.
This week Canada's image takes another great leap forward with the reopening of the renovated Canada House, an imposing 19th-century building on Trafalgar Square that will be a cultural as well as diplomatic showcase for Canadians in London and a magnet for the British cultural community.
The London spotlight will be on Canada House on Wednesday, when the Queen snips the ribbon to formally reopen the building in a gala ceremony with visiting Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.
TRIUMPH FOR PM
A military guard of honour will kick off an outdoor ceremony, and launch a series of multi-media entertainments for Canada Month in London, featuring celebrities, including photographer Yousuf Karsh, writer Margaret Atwood, director Robert Lepage and Egoyan.
A "dream team" of Canadian chefs, including the Royal York's George McNeill, will feed the glittering guests at the reopening, and show off a cuisine that is also winning international accolades.
But the star of the show, and its focal point, is Canada House itself, its bright red Maple Leaf fluttering over the sightseers and pigeon-fanciers of Trafalgar Square.
The reopening is a minor triumph for Chrétien, who will have the satisfaction of seeing the elegant structure that was "smothered to death" - as one official privately described it - by political sparring partner prime minister Brian Mulroney in a belt-tightening exercise, spring to life in time for the millennium.
Or, as the frenetic workers and crafts people who helped to create the renovated Canada House would say, lurch to life.
The giant project, two buildings rolled into one, was financed on a cost-sharing basis with a host of "corporate sponsors," including Bell Canada, Air Canada, Canadian National Railway Co., Canadian Pacific Hotels, and several banks.
ROWS OF COMPUTERS
It has kept a building staff of 180 busy for more than a year, engaged some of Canada's finest designers and crafts people, and involved the kind of painstaking renovation work seldom seen outside the most major historical sites.
Just days before the reopening, cotton wool swathed the sweeping banisters and cardboard strips saved the restored marble and wood floors from gouges as rows of antique and modern furniture were moved from room to room.
Rows of computers sat in a semi-finished ground-floor anteroom, with technicians muttering incantations over their keys as interactive software was tested and fine tuned.
"Remember the old days when every Canadian who visited London would come here for mail?" said a press officer. "Those days are definitely gone."
Now Canada House is one of the first diplomatic missions to have a state-of-the-art email system where tourists can get instant messages from overseas.
They can also plug into the news, sports and cultural events that they've left behind.
Computers will be accessible, too, for Londoners and foreign tourists to learn about Canada's history, geography and culture.
But for all the 21st-century technology, it's the historic quality of the building, and its restoration, that will take centre stage when Canada House reopens.
Originally built between 1824 and 1827 by the fashionable "Greek revival" architect Sir Robert Smirke, it was designed as two buildings, the ultra-exclusive Union Club and the Royal College of Physicians.
The Canadian High Commission leased the Union Club in 1923. Under the direction of architect Septimus Warwick, designer of the Manitoba Legislature, the Canadian acquisition was made even more elaborate, with a new south-looking facade flanked by imposing columns.
But when the commission also leased the next-door Royal College of Physicians and incorporated the two buildings in 1964, tacky "improvements" were made to update the structure and fit in more staff.
Ceilings were lowered and plasterboard covered some of the elegant features of the buildings.
Nor was the building helped by years of vacancy, after the Mulroney government moved staff into other buildings and gradually shut down Canada House as part of a downsizing plan.
But when work began to reopen it 18 months ago, new health and safety regulations necessitated tearing apart some of the elderly structure.
"What began as a delicate balancing act became a voyage of discovery, as forgotten corners of the building were opened and given new life again," said a High Commission summary of the process.
With some of the ugly plasterwork peeled away, a vaulting domed skylight and ornate ceiling peeped through the second floor. The dim honeycomb of small offices gave way to the traditional airy spaces when walls were torn out.
But for thousands of Canadians visiting London, though, the most striking feature is the presence once again of their home away from home on Trafalgar Square, an emotional mecca for visitors for so much of this century.
"One of the things that struck me was the importance that this building has in the Canadian national psyche," says Martin Fantl, a consultant to the government on the restoration. "What became clear is that Canada House is more than just a diplomatic building, it is a national emblem."