Eleanor Milne on not listening to the prime minister
By Bhat Boy
“I found a note from Lester B. Pearson in my mailbox asking me to clean the bricks in the foyer outside his office one at a time, but that was going to take eight years, literally, so I decided to pretend I never received that note.” At age 88, Eleanor Milne is more than a little cheeky.
An article about her accomplishments would be long and painstaking. As Dominion Sculptor from 1963 to 1993, Milne was in charge of all of Canada’s national monuments for three decades, including the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the equestrian statue of the Queen on Parliament Hill, the Famous Five and a litany of others. She started by carving details on the Senate building and cleaning the foyer stonework outside the prime minister’s office.
In the 1970s under Trudeau, she designed and worked with teams to create 12 stained glass windows in the House of Commons, each 14 feet tall, representing the provinces and territories. Working for 30 years on the hill from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., she would have lunch at 3 a.m. and play poker in the Senate. “The stuff that we would find that they were throwing away, you wouldn’t believe, we always used to pick through the garbage.” Her hand is all over the centre block, from the proud details in the stairwells to the taunting faces carved into the ceilings.
Milne lives on Powell Avenue in what was once her grandparents’ house. I ask if she remembers visiting when she was young. “Oh yes,” she says. Milne, who is tall, looks out onto her sunny garden holding her slightly tarnished Order of Canada in her left hand. “My grandfather, Joseph Gilhooley, lived at 586 Gladstone Avenue. It was a big old house, no proper central heating, and I remember my grandmother, Rose, telling me that on winter mornings there would sometimes be ice in the wash basin. They swapped that old house for this smaller, modern house that had central heating. It was one of the first three houses built on Powell Avenue. All three were identical. It was brand new (the house on Powell), but the owner was having trouble paying for it, and he had 13 children; my grandfather only had eight and some of them were already growing up. So my grandfather gave the man $6,000 as well, even though his [Gladstone] house was bigger, because this house was spanking new.”
“We would drive here from Saint John, New Brunswick, I guess that was in the ’30s. We had a trunk on the back of the car, a real trunk, not what people call trunks now. When it rained, we would get stuck in the mud sometimes, as not all the roads were paved and Dad would have to push. I used to stay here on Powell Avenue overnight sometimes, but mostly we stayed at our cottage in Wakefield. There were no houses north of us all the way to Gladstone then, and from my bedroom I could see across the fields to the train tracks where the Queensway is now. I could see men dropping off the trains coming into town in the evening. Tramps.”
“Were you scared?”
“It never occurred to me to be scared.” I ask if there were traffic lights at Carling and Bronson then. “Oh no, that was the way you drove to Toronto back then, but there were no traffic lights. My grandfather was police chief of Ottawa. There was only one stoplight in Ottawa back in those days, at Sappers Bridge. Grandfather didn’t believe in them. When the police Wellington, one would jump on the running board and the other would rush out into the intersection and stop traffic.” There is a twinkle in Milne’s eye when she tells this story.
In September 1945, Milne went to London to study at the Central College of Arts and Crafts. “I could see the sky coming through the roof and windows of the houses across the street where we lived, and there were piles of rubble everywhere. The school itself had been bombed, and there was no heating. I was given a ration book. Two ounces of cheese a week, one egg a month! But I had a fabulous time, we danced at the art students’ ball in the Royal Albert Hall, and they filled our glasses with champagne from the boxes above; it was marvelous, but I got sick and had to come home. I was starving to death. The English were used to it, they had the whole war to acclimatize, but I just got sick.” Milne is six foot, one inch tall, and was spending her days sculpting and casting (and apparently her nights dancing and drinking champagne). It is no surprise that she got sick.
“My great uncle James McGuire, my mother’s brother, was a sculptor in Ireland, but he caught pneumonia while carving in an unheated church and died at age 28. And my sister Barbra got turned down for studying architecture at McGill, and my mother went down to find out why, and the professor told her they had already met their quota of girls. Well, wouldn’t you know, Barbra started studying there the next September.”
Like her mother, Milne is no shrinking violet, and when I ask if being a woman made her career more difficult, she says, “The only time I ever remember it coming up was when I was appointed Dominion Sculptor in 1963. There was a competition and of 21 entrants, I was the only woman, and I won. Some people said that a man should have got the job. Later on, Trudeau wanted to change the job title to Dominion Sculptor of Canada but I didn’t like it, none of us liked it, so I just went on calling myself the Dominion Sculptor, and that is still what it’s called today.”
Creativity seems natural to Milne, something she doesn’t question. Despite having retired some years ago, her creativity just keeps on finding new expression.
Looking at a painting of a river and red bridge on the wall, I ask if it’s the covered bridge in Wakefield. “Yes, I painted a painting every weekend all that summer,” she says with a sigh, “but they all sold – these are the only two left. I won’t sell these. This one is for my nephew who lives upstairs. I have this one I am working on now, but it is behind the dresser.”
Milne dashes over and starts to pull out a bureau, and I rush over to help. Behind it is a six-foot-long panel with birds and boxes attached to the front. A splash of red shakes the right half, while an empty box lurks in the corner. It is painted black. “It’s about life, but the box down in the corner is death, I haven’t finished that part yet, it still needs something.”
She is restless with energy as she talks about her unfinished painting, and waves her hands in the air before opening up a folder of bright, joyous abstract images, colours dancing – free, playful art. “These are my computer drawings. Do you draw on the computer?” When I answer no, she tells me I should, it’s wonderful. Regardless of notes and suggestions from former prime ministers that Eleanor Milne chose to ignore, her restless, creative energy has helped sculpt the Canada that generations of future Canadians will inherit.
Bhat Boy is an artist who, as part of the Glebe community, is always finding new avenues to rejuvenate the community spirit.