OTTAWA - A body has been found in the Parliament Hill office of NDP Leader Tom Mulcair.
Authorities say identification has been difficult because of the deteriorated condition of the corpse, which resembled broccoli.
OK, the "body" is just an artist's rendering of a fallen knight, uncovered during restoration work on the magnificent murals that adorn the upper walls of the official Opposition leader's office.
But it's nevertheless a finding of historic significance that adds to the mystique of an office already known for other peculiarities — most of which can be traced to its original occupant, William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada's longest-serving and most eccentric prime minister.
The dead knight has lain hidden for more than 70 years, his body obscured by salts leaching from the plaster into the paint. It was further disfigured by a sloppy effort in the late 1930s to restore the murals to their original glory.
"It looked like a mound of (green), a blob, or, as I call it, a broccoli head," said Wendy Baker, a conservator with Canadian Heritage's Canadian Conservation Institute who uncovered the body several weeks ago.
"I didn't know what it was. It was just bizarre."
The mural in question depicts a medieval, armoured knight wielding a sword. It had been so badly touched up that it was impossible to see that he was standing over the body of another knight — until Baker uncovered it.
"The figure lying prone was painted largely in green paint and was really impossible to interpret as anything," she said.
"When the over-paint came off, it became very evident immediately that it wasn't a stick of broccoli, it was actually a helmet (of a fallen knight). ... He's lying on his shield but even the shield was heavily over-painted.
"I had a colleague with me and I asked him over. I said, 'Ian, does that look like a body to you?' and he said, 'Yes, that's definitely a body.' So there we are. We have recovered a body in the leader of the Opposition's room."
Mulcair has been dining out on the story ever since, telling a lawyer friend recently that he'd been banished from his ornate, fourth-floor office, which sits directly above the prime minister's office in Parliament's Centre Block.
"It's all covered in polyethylene because they found a body," he told his suitably shocked friend.
Mulcair's desk and the office's intricately carved oak woodwork are in fact covered by protective plastic sheets while Baker and her colleagues are conducting the painstaking restoration work. However, the work, which began in 2008, is only carried out when the House of Commons is in recess so as not to unduly disturb the NDP leader.
Mulcair has enthusiastically steeped himself in the heritage of the room and "thought it was amazing" when the body was uncovered. If it crossed his mind initially that the corpse might be that of a recent Liberal occupant of the office, dispatched by a knife in the back, he's not saying.
"I'll just take that as a cue that we do have to show a lot of courage in these jobs," was all Mulcair would say on that subject.
David Monaghan, curator of the House of Commons, says the murals in the Opposition leader's office are the only genuine frescoes in Parliament, painted directly onto the wet plaster by Italian artist Attilio Pusterla when Centre Block was rebuilt after a fire destroyed the original building in 1916. Other murals in the building were painted on canvas and then affixed to the walls.
King moved into the office as Liberal leader in 1920, and was so taken with his new digs that he refused to move out even after becoming prime minister. He became keenly interested in the murals and was consulted by architect John A. Pearson on the themes to be portrayed.
According to King's diary, each mural, most involving Camelot-like scenes of knighthood, is meant to depict an attribute needed by a leader of the official Opposition: struggle, integrity, justice, fidelity, conciliation, watchfulness, fearlessness, vision and wisdom.
Fearlessness is the characteristic portrayed in the mural with the newly discovered body.
The sword-wielding knight "is defending either a fallen comrade or he has just dispatched someone and is facing another foe," speculated Baker.
Monaghan said the first interpretation is generally regarded as most likely.
The "vision" mural, Baker's latest restoration project, features what could be the homeliest angel ever painted. The angel vaguely resembles Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, in drag.
"I was really hoping she was over-painted so that she would improve her appearance (after restoration). But, no, unfortunately that's what it is," said Baker.
Historical references suggest the model for the angel was King's dead mother, with whom the leader famously communed through seances.
"King actually recommended that the face of his mother be used for the angel," said Monaghan, adding that the artist "apparently" acquiesced.
Commons historians have long wondered whether the visage of King's mother may also have been used as a model for the queen featured in the "justice" mural, but Monaghan said no historical evidence for that has been found. The queen is considerably more attractive than the angel.
Until now, the office's most famous feature was its secret door, which Monaghan said was installed at King's request to provide him an escape route from "unwanted visitors." A carved oak panel on one side of the office's enormous marble fireplace is actually a door that leads into a tiny chamber and another door to the outer corridor, conveniently located next to a staircase.
Since moving into the office last spring, Mulcair has found everyone is "fascinated" by the secret door.
"It's a great conversation piece," he said.
But that was before the body was found.
The office has fallen victim to political correctness over the years. Carved wooden plaques originally installed under each of the murals to identify the various leadership traits being depicted were removed in the 1960s, at John Diefenbaker's request, because they were inscribed only in English, according to Monaghan.
Two traits — moderation and toleration, which are painted directly onto the walls without any accompanying murals — were left since the words are the same in both French and English. Or in the case of toleration, arguably not a real word in either language. ("Artistic licence," says Monaghan.)
Fortunately, Diefenbaker did not see fit to ask that the British coat of arms, carved in wood over the main door of the office at time when Canada had no coat of arms of its own, also be removed. Mulcair noted that the motto under the coat of arms is also unilingual — entirely in French.
New plaques — bilingual ones, this time — are to eventually be installed under the murals. The objective, said Monaghan, is to return the ornate office as much as possible to its original state.
Public Works, which is overseeing the project, regards the work on the frescoes as a template for the massive renovation planned for the entire Centre Block, Monaghan said — ensuring not only that the crumbling building will continue to stand for years to come but will do so in all its historic glory, dead bodies and all.
- Politics & Government
- William Lyon Mackenzie King
- Wendy Baker
- Centre Block