11/27/2011 06:00 EST | Updated 01/27/2012 05:12 EST

Stephen Harper's Office Wants Their Portrait Of The Queen Back From John Baird's Department


OTTAWA - The prime minister called and he wants his picture of the Queen back.

That was the sum of a pointed note from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's officials to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird's department after whirlwind preparations for the visit of Prince William and Kate last June.

The Conservative government has been on a spree of mounting pictures of the Monarch around federal offices and Canadian missions over this past year, but it seemed there weren't always enough reproductions of Her Royal Highess to go around.

Harper's office had to organize a last-minute loaner portrait of the Queen from a cabinet anteroom to hang in the lobby of the Foreign Affairs building just in time for the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in late June.

Newly released documents obtained by The Canadian Press make it clear the Queen's likeness was handed over as a temporary loan and Harper's staff were impatiently awaiting its return.

Correspondence and other papers divulged under Access to Information laws detail the majestic scramble that ensued that month when Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird suddenly ordered that a photo portrait of the Queen be erected in the Lester B. Pearson building in downtown Ottawa.

The visit of Prince William and Kate was first announced by the government in mid-February. But officials were given nine days' notice to take down two historic paintings by Quebec modern master Alfred Pellan and properly store them, professionally clean the wall and erect the portrait with new plaques commemorating the "Sovereign's Wall."

By the afternoon of June 30, the same day that Kate and Will were arriving in Canada, the bronze plaques had still not arrived downtown.

The removal of the two Pellan paintings, called "Canada West Canada East," triggered grumbling by some Foreign Affairs employees and sparked an uproar in the late-painter's home province. Critics said the move smacked of old-style colonialism.

Pellan's brightly coloured pieces depicting British Columbia and the Maritimes had been commissioned for the first Canadian mission in Brazil in 1944, and were hung in the Pearson building's lobby for its opening in 1973 by the Queen. Pellan is one of Canada's pioneering modern artists, with a federal riding and several public spaces in Quebec named after him.

But some of those involved in the portrait decision didn't seem to know or care about the work of art already hanging in the lobby.

"Can you take down the two red portraits now (we'll figure out what do to with them later)...," wrote one Baird staffer.

Another public servant charged with the logistics of the change referred to them as two "large native art pieces."

Hanging the portrait was clearly a priority. The operation cost $5,900, plus an undisclosed amount for the bronze plaques and the new Queen's photo that would eventually hang in the lobby. Quality of the job appeared less important than the haste with which it needed to be done.

Officials pointed out a piece of the Queen's emblem — the crown over her golden anniversary crest — was missing. A brass plate on the portrait held in place with double-sided tape fell off during the move.

Baird was cool to the suggestion of a supporter to find a real painting of the Queen, rather than a reproduction of the 2002 golden jubilee photograph.

"While it may be appropriate to suggest that an oil portrait of Her Majesty The Queen should be hung in place of the photograph to more accurately reflect the dignity and esteem with which she is held, it is important to be aware that Canadians expect the Government of Canada to manage taxpayer dollars responsibly and ensure that all expenditures provide value for money," Baird wrote in a letter.

What has become of the two Pellans has been a bit of a mystery. The Department of Foreign Affairs did not respond to questions about their current location, directing The Canadian Press to statements made by Baird's office last July that a suitable home would be found for them.

Less than a month after the Queen's portrait was erected in the foreign affairs lobby, the Prime Minister's Office was calling in its I.O.U.

"I just spoke with Tyler Golden in the Office of the Prime Minister and he is wondering when they can have their portrait of the Queen returned to Centre Block," wrote one bureaucrat. "His understanding was that the loan of the portrait was for the royal visit."

Shortly after the designation of the "Sovereign's Wall" at the Department of Foreign Affairs, all Canadian missions overseas were sent a directive asking them to ensure they had photos of the Queen, the governor general, prime minister and other relevant ministers displayed in their public reception areas. The Monarchist League of Canada has saluted the renewed signs of respect for the sovereign.

The Conservative government is going to great lengths to celebrate the Queen's diamond jubilee next year. The Department of Canadian Heritage paid $55,135 for 500,000 hand-held Diamond Jubilee flags. They put out a call for tenders last week for 2,250 full size flags at a cost that has yet to be determined.