Harper’s History: Rebranding the Canadian Past

The political usage of history is not a modern phenomenon. Historical discussion has always been used for political purposes to shape the meaning and memory of the past. As we've discussed on this blog, the Government of Canada has focused heavily on the commemoration of the past since Stephen Harper became Prime Minister in 2006.  Various campaigns have emphasized a Conservative vision of the past. Certainly the Liberals have had their time to write Canadian history and Conservatives could argue that the Conservative effort to remake Canadian history is justified.  Yet, the inconsistency behind that effort continues to do Canadians a disservice.  History has been and will remain a fluid understanding of the past, but Canadians deserve to at least have their government present their history to them in an honest, coherent, and open way.

It's somewhat surprising then that until very recently, the Government of Canada remained silent on its plans to commemorate the upcoming centenary of the First World War. At an international ministerial seminar in Paris, which consisted of ministers from over twenty countries, Julian Fantino, Canadian Minister of Veteran’s Affairs, unveiled some of Canada’s plans. While not offering concrete details about centenary events, Fantino claimed that Canada would collaborate with partners in Canada and abroad to commemorate “the tremendous sacrifices and accomplishments of those who served during these Great Wars.”

Planning ceremonies, exhibits, and other commemorative initiatives takes months and even years of preparation. For that reason, many historians in Canada are interested to see how Stephen Harper’s Conservative Government employs Canadian history in what maybe the final years of his time in power. The lack of public dialogue is all the more confusing when one considers the lengthy, and not seldom heated, debates about how the United Kingdom plans to commemorate their role in the First World War. Gary Sheffield, a British historian of the First World War, vehemently opposes the view that the conflict was futile, claiming that the British fought against German aggression and expansionism. Additionally, the BBC recently announced plans to mark the centennial with the biggest television season to date, consisting of 130 programs and spanning 2,500 hours over four years.

In Canada, however, since 2006 the Harper Conservatives have consistently attempted to refashion our understanding of Canadian history with little to no input from professional historians or the public. It has become increasingly clear that by “Canadian history,” the Harper Conservatives really mean an emphasis on Canadian military accomplishments and Canada’s connection to Great Britain. Any other answers are not included in government communications. This helps explain the federal program to commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812, a war that some historians argue neither forged a Canadian identity nor had much to do with most of the territory that would later become Canada in 1867. Additionally, one might broach questions about how beneficial the consequences of war in 1814 were for the aboriginal peoples who participated in the conflict. The extent to which the Government of Canada has gone to commemorate the events, as well as the amount of funding dedicated to commemorative initiatives, suggests that Harper’s Government will continue to exploit the bicentennial of 1812 until 2014. In this sense, it’s not surprising that the government has not yet issued detailed plans about Great War centenary events.

This past summer, Harper announced that his government would rebrand the Canadian Museum of Civilization as a museum exclusively dedicated to “Canadian history.” The Museum of Civilization had previously invited international exhibits, such as “Mystery of the Maya,” and another scheduled to focus on Haitian voodoo, which may now be canceled. A year ago, it was reported that staff was leaving the unopened Canadian Museum for Human Rights due to “political interference.” The Museum Board wanted more Canadian experiences and positive Canadian stories. Though no employees have officially commented on the allegations, it suggests yet another concentration on a national narrative for an institution of Canadian public memory.

The politicization of history is an intensifying pattern that Canadians have witnessed throughout the tenure of the current government. Still, there are examples of commemoration which do not seem to fit. In April 2013, for example, very little attention was given to the announcement of a Canadian National Holocaust Memorial to be built in Ottawa. The campaign of the Conservatives to reshape Canadian history now seems to include the construction of a Canadian Holocaust Memorial. We might very well ask why is this monument being constructed now and why are Canadian tax dollars being used to accomplish this objective? The National Holocaust Memorial will “recognize how Canadians and Canadian history have been affected, and that will continue to stand against any forces that oppose our essential principles.” Yet, if it was not important enough to mention alongside other national commemorative events, one might wonder why the Holocaust Memorial is a part of the government's larger effort to construct a more coherent, traditional, and national history. Canadian-Israeli relations, a topic that we’ve addressed before, will no doubt be bolstered by remembering such a terrible event.  Less can be said about the impact of the millions of dollars spent on remembering the War of 1812 or the rebranding of Canada's Museum of Civilization. At last, the current government's politicization of history has some apparent value.

The current government’s stance on history has been one riddled with contradictions, perhaps not unlike many other portfolios. While placing great emphasis on preserving Canada’s rich history and heritage, Harper’s Government has cut millions from the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) budget—the institution tasked with preserving Canada’s documentary past. Historians, like any other specialist, should have some role in consulting how best to achieve LAC’s mandate. As historians, we believe that history in the public sphere is extremely valuable—even necessary—but it should always remain within the domain of historians rather than politicians.