07/22/2015 12:42 EDT | Updated 07/22/2016 05:59 EDT

Peter MacKay maintains support for controversial Mother Canada statue

Federal cabinet minister Peter MacKay says he continues to support the controversial eight-storey Mother Canada statue and said it is fitting to build the war memorial in Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

The Never Forgotten National Memorial Foundation wants to build a $25-million memorial to Canada's war dead on a stretch of the trail between Ingonish and Neils Harbour. The memorial centrepiece is a 24-metre statue of a woman, her arms outstretched towards Europe.

Detractors have called it everything from "vulgar and ostentatious" to"inappropriate" and counter to the "ecological integrity" of the park.

Supporters maintain it's a fitting memorial that would boost tourism in northern Cape Breton.

"That particular location serves as a poignant reminder, that's the last place many of those young men, predominantly, would've seen when they left to go off to defend our freedom and our democracy," MacKay said Wednesday.

MacKay is listed as an honorary patron of the Never Forgotten National Memorial Foundation. He said he was approached by Toronto businessman Tony Trigiani, the foundation's president and CEO, and retired Maj.-Gen. Lewis MacKenzie, an ambassador for the project.

MacKay said they made the case for the project and he decided to support it after seeing evidence that it would not affect the local fishery, wildlife and fauna. He said his support is "in keeping with my previous role as minister of national defence and the affection and support for the military."

He said he is aware of criticism of the project but none of the arguments have made him change his mind. 

"I suppose if there's some data, or some evidence — and it would have to be compelling — that this was going to have a very detrimental impact on the environment for example. I haven't seen anything to that effect," said MacKay.

In addition to the 24-metre statue, the memorial plan includes a parking lot, a restaurant, souvenir shop and an interpretive centre.

A citizens group is calling for an in-depth independent environmental assessment of the project.

Sean Howard, of Friends of Green Cove, says a draft impact analysis prepared by Stantec Consulting Ltd. for the Never Forgotten National Memorial Foundation didn't go far enough to explore the environmental impact.

The draft report found the project would attract more visitors to the area and found the effect on the environmental would be "neglible to moderate" and contained to an area that has already been disturbed. 

"I think [MacKay] is being conveniently reassured by a report that doesn't stand up to serious, independent scientific scrutiny."

He says the site is too fragile to support the development and pointed to concerns raised by former Parks Canada managers.

"It's going to be a demonstrably devastating effect. You're going to pour concrete over half a billion-year-old rock. You're going to destroy the scientific, spiritual, natural beauty of Green Cove forever."

Other honorary patrons include former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna, CBC commentator Rex Murphy, former Quebec premier Jean Charest, Calgary Flames president Brian Burke and Nova Scotia Senator Michael L. MacDonald.