Government of Canada criticized for selecting National Monument design winner by poll, not jury

The Government of Canada's process of selecting the winner for a competition to design the National Monument to Canada’s Mission in Afghanistan is under scrutiny.

Shortlisted proposals for the monument to Canada’s Mission in Afghanistan

The Government of Canada’s process of selecting the winner for a competition to design the National Monument to Canada’s Mission in Afghanistan is under scrutiny. Documents shared by Quebec architecture firm Daoust Lestage Lizotte Stecker and a subsequent investigation by Quebec newspaper La Presse have revealed how the Government chose the winner of a public poll over the jury’s selected winner.

While the project designed by Daoust Lestage Lizotte Stecker Architecture + Luca Fortin (artist) + Louise Arbour (advisor) was selected the winner by the competition jury, it was not awarded the project by the Government of Canada.

On June 19, 2023, the Government of Canada announced the selection of a design by Team Stimson, comprising Adrian Stimson, Visual Artist; MBTW Group, Landscape Architects; and LeuWebb Projects, Public Art Coordinators. This followed a national design competition process launched in 2020.

However, the day after the public announcement of the winner, Daoust Lestage Lizotte Stecker received a letter from Veterans Affairs Canada, which read, in part: “Despite the fact that the jury designated your concept as the winning concept of the competition, after careful consideration, the Government of Canada has decided to select the concept developed by [another team] and, consequently, to award the contract to that team.”

The government has said that it based its decision on the results of a public poll surveying respondents on their reactions to five shortlisted proposals. The poll received 12,048 responses, 85 percent of which came from respondents that participated in Canada’s mission in Afghanistan, family members of those who participated, veterans, or current members of the Canadian Armed Forces. Overall, more than half of the poll’s respondents favoured the Team Stimson proposal, which was selected about 25 percent to 50 percent more often than the Daoust Lestage Lizotte Stecker proposal, depending on the question asked.

But “when it comes to judging art or architecture projects, an online survey is a ‘simulacrum of democracy’ that cannot replace either a design competition or a real jury,” write Jean-Pierre Chupin, Canada Research Chair in Architecture, Competitions and Mediations of Excellence at the Université de Montréal and architect Jacques White, trainer and professional advisor for multidisciplinary and architectural competitions.

If this case were to become a precedent for public commissions, no architect, designer or artist would agree to their proposals being fed to an online survey,” continue Chupin and White. “To judge the complexity of projects for public spaces, buildings open to the public and, in this case, public monuments, a survey will never be as reliable, fair and transparent a procedure as a well-organized competition.”

“An anonymous online survey, even if accompanied by a series of questions, is not the equivalent of the deliberations of a jury representing the interests of the public, made up of members informed of the multiple issues at stake, who debate all the proposals—themselves designed by multidisciplinary teams—for long hours, and make a well-argued consensus judgment in the name of the collective interest,” write Chupin and White.

Daoust Lestage Lizotte Stecker has written to the Prime Minister of Canada to protest the “undemocratic selection process,” and is gathering support for a follow-up letter asking that the government reverse its decision and award the mandate to the team selected by the jury, as stipulated in the competition rules. It is also asking that the government put in place the necessary mechanisms to ensure that this situation does not reoccur in future competitive bidding processes. Supporters of their petition include CCA founder Phyllis Lambert, KPMB founder Bruce Kuwabara, and former Senators The Honorable Serge Joyal and The Honorable Patricia Bovey.

Another petition led by the Regroupement des artistes en arts visuels RAAV has garnered over 1,500 signatures. “Although it can be explained by certain political considerations, this decision is in no way justifiable and is in complete contradiction with the initial commitment to respect the results of the selection process,” reads the RAAV petition. “It raises concerns about the credibility of the competition and the way the rules were selectively applied, jeopardizing artists’ confidence in this type of government initiative.”