Huge crowds take in unveiling of statue



At a key moment, as if on cue for the cameras, the sun came out as actor Kiefer Sutherland stood beside the newly-unveiled statue of his grandfather Tommy Douglas, and holding the statue's outstretched hand, he declared, "I've waited a long time to hold my grandfather's hand."

The dignitaries and the huge crowd of onlookers packed in around the area where the statue was unveiled on Friday afternoon broke out into applause, the second major ovation of the afternoon, after first applauding renowned sculptor Lea Vivot as she stepped up beside the statue of Douglas just after the wrapping cloth was removed by Sutherland, Vivot and Mayor Debra Button.

Due to the unsettled weather, organizers of the official unveiling ceremonies decided to first unveil the statue at its site beside the Riverfront Market Boardwalk, facing the Souris River and Highway 39, and then hosted the speeches by all the dignitaries, and by Vivot and Sutherland, at the Weyburn Legion Hall.

Following the unveiling, the huge crowds seemed to flow with Sutherland, his security detail and the dignitaries as they made their way back to their vehicles. Sutherland was not flustered by all the attention, and took time along the way to shake hands, sign autographs and have his picture taken with fans.

The Legion Hall was filled to capacity with standing-room only crowds to hear the speeches and to see the internationally-known movie and TV star, along with Vivot, federal NDP leader Jack Layton, provincial NDP leader Dwain Lingenfelter, MP Ed Komarnicki and Mayor Button. MLA Dustin Duncan was unable to attend, but his remarks were read by his wife Amanda.

Sutherland did not disappoint, as he shared stories he heard from his grandparents Tommy and Irma Douglas while growing up, always hearing about this place called Weyburn, so he was happy to have the opportunity to come to the city to represent the Douglas family.

He noted there have been very few times he was jealous about his twin sister Rachel having an opportunity he didn't, but one of those was when Rachel got to accompany their mother Irma to Weyburn in 1985 to present the grand piano to what would become the T.C. Douglas Centre, the former home of the Calvary Baptist Church when Douglas was minister there.

"Weyburn has been this mystical place I kept hearing about," said Sutherland, speaking of when he would visit his grandparents while growing up. "All the stories were about Weyburn I've always wanted to come to this place."

Referring to the Legion Hall, Sutherland noted he had been told about it since he was eight, and said his mother, actress Shirley Douglas, first acted in a play on that stage. He also recalled how he was told about when Douglas won as Premier of Saskatchewan in 1944, and Shirley "was so excited, she came up here and said, 'Now the chains have been broken!' My grandfather was so embarrassed, she was so precocious; he thought people would think he told her to say that."

Sutherland paid tribute to the place Weyburn held in the hearts of the Douglas family, explaining why this city is so important to them.

"He made a real conscious choice to stay here in Weyburn. You see, the people of Weyburn took a chance and got behind him. It was that kind of commitment to stand with him that mattered to him the most. I asked him once to describe to me what he thought about Weyburn. His face softened in that way it does, and he said to me, "They're the strongest people I have ever known.' From the position of an eight-year-old, I thought, 'Wow, the strongest people he'd ever known. The weather must be just awful out there.' I mean, what else was there to fight against?" he said to laughter. "He was right. He was right."

The actor went on to note the people also picked him up when he and Irma felt down and out, and told the crowd, "Thank you from the bottom of my heart, our family. You have a place in our hearts forever, and this is what we will always consider as home."

As Sutherland sat down, there was an extended standing ovation from both the crowd and the dignitaries on stage with him.

Last to speak was sculptor Lea Vivot, and in her soft voice she expressed her gratitude to the city and the residents, and said of her subject, Tommy Douglas, "His legacy inspired the good in all of us. It was an honour for me to immortalize the immortal. Thank you for allowing me to create this artistic expression of him. It was a labour of love and dedication to the labours of his life."

The Czech native, who now lives in Kleinburg, Ont., said she had never met him, but was so inspired by what he had done, exemplified by the nation-wide vote on CBC-TV to call him "The Greatest Canadian", that she made the offer to the city to create a bronze sculpture of him.

Residents responded and raised the money to pay for the bronze materials and for the base the statue stands on, and after two years of labour on the work, the statue was finally unveiled on Friday afternoon in its final resting place.

"Cherish his memory. The contribution of Tommy Douglas to Canada and to the world is monumental," said Vivot.
Speaking earlier, one of the local supporters for the statue coming to Weyburn, Rev. Ross McMurtry, provided the history of how this gift came to be.

"Why a statue, you might ask? Put simply, to keep alive the life and memory of a man who did so much good for so many people over so many years. Oh I know, in one of his more playful moods, Tommy said, 'I don't want a statue erected to my memory, for you know what pigeons do to statues.' Yes Tommy, we know what pigeons do to statues, but we also know what this statue will do for us and for those who will come after us," said McMurtry.

Mayor Button commented that she believes the location where the statue is located would be a place where Douglas would have liked to sit and reflect.

Following the speeches, cake was served, and the fans of Sutherland flocked to him to get his autograph and have their picture taken with him. Mayor Button produced a shirt from the Family Place which Sutherland autographed, and the shirt will now be raffled off at some point as a fundraiser for that facility.

At one point, Sutherland was led down to the floor to meet Helen Davidson, who served as the organist for Tommy Douglas and for Calvary Baptist Church for over 70 years. After spending several minutes visiting with her, Sutherland then patiently took the time to talk to many fans before finally taking a break and later having supper with Vivot and some of the local organizers of Friday's event in the lower hall of the Legion.

Prior to the unveiling ceremonies, Sutherland was shown by Isabelle Butters around the city, including the home where his mother and grandparents lived on Coteau Avenue, as well as having a tour of the T.C. Douglas Centre, where he was interested in the many photos and memorabilia there of his family.

He commented there that having this statue in honour of his grandfather "means everything to me", and noted he would like to come back some day with his two daughters and grandson to show them the statue, as well as the other sights of the city.

article continues below