Parsing the Canadian history wars

Every party, not just the Conservatives, pushes their own view of history

Among the list of grievances critics of Prime Minister Stephen Harper inevitably trot out as further evidence of his profound, Machiavellian evil is the way in which Canadian history has been rebranded, or remade, under his leadership.

The common refrain is that the prime minister insists on emphasizing the country’s ties to the Commonwealth and the monarchy, coupled with perceived military valour (particularly during the War of 1812 and the First World War) at the expense of other historical narratives that are more valuable in understanding Canada’s political and socioeconomic development. He does this, his critics say, for purely partisan political purposes.

Taking these critics at their word and conceding that the prime minister is remaking Canadian history to correspond with the Conservative brand, a reasonable question to ask is whether such rebranding is a perilous injustice committed only by the Harper Conservatives.

But ultimately, every party views history through a uniquely (and oftentimes distorted) partisan lens.

The New Democrats, for example, inevitably see the arch of history as one in which social and labour movements have used collective action, both through political parties as well as through strikes and mass protests, to pressure governments into significant social welfare reforms, from old age pensions to universal health care. For the NDP, history is all about the collective fight for social equality.

The Liberals, in contrast, define the arch of Canadian history as a struggle for independence from Great Britain and a perpetual fight for national unity. Liberals believe the completion of Canada’s historic arch rests on the foundation of constitutionally protected individual human rights for all citizens. Repatriation and the Charter, established by Pierre Elliot Trudeau, is what keeps the country together. For the Liberals, unsurprisingly, history is all about individual liberty.

Then there is the Conservative approach. The Tories ultimately value traditional institutions, such as the monarchy and the Commonwealth, and believe that our stubborn maintenance of these institutions is integral to understanding Canada’s long-standing prosperity and security.

As such, Conservatives emphasize our impassioned resistance to American conquest in 1812 and our valiant effort in support of the mother country, Great Britain, during the First World War. For the Conservatives we are above all British subjects and Crown loyalists who categorically rejected (and still reject) the Republican experiment to the South – and we’re better off for it. For the Conservatives, unsurprisingly, history is all about institutional stability and nationalistic resolve.

Given these competing visions of Canadian history, each of which conveniently fit into a broader partisan narrative, is it any wonder that the Conservatives, upon winning office, would expound the virtues of Queen and country to a nation all too familiar with Liberal human rights narratives?

In short, no one should be surprised that the Harper Conservatives have chosen to give their peculiar brand of history more prominence on the national stage. Rather, the much more consequential issue raised by Harper’s staunchest critics is the extent to which these partisan skirmishes do any particular harm.

The most virulent critics argue that the prime minister’s approach is not only conveniently blind to historical nuance, but that it deliberately excludes certain under-represented voices from the national dialogue, such as those of Aboriginal people. This was seen recently in the outcry over the celebration of Sir John A. Macdonald’s 200th birthday, which was met with heated criticism from those who believe Macdonald was little more than a genocidal racist.

It was the latest controversy among many.

Seemingly thousands in the academic world cried foul when the Conservatives announced that the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec over the bridge from Ottawa would be renamed the Museum of Canadian History with a distinct focus on the country’s political development; they portrayed the changed mandate as undue political interference in the affairs of an important national institution.

Even the remarkable discovery of the HMS Erebus was confronted with petulance, with many describing the resources spent on the exhibition, and the celebration of the discovery, as a subtle propaganda campaign rather than an endearing (and fascinating) part of our national mythology.

Finally, the planned victims of communism monument has been described as everything from a crass political manoeuvre to attract immigrant voters to yet another extension of Conservative foreign policy bluster in the form of national propaganda. Naturally, it couldn’t be both inherently political and also a sincere gesture of good will and remembrance of past atrocities. While there is legitimate debate over the location of the monument (it should not dwarf the Supreme Court of Canada), it is entirely appropriate to have such a monument in the nation’s capital.

In short, the Tory historical perspective does exclude large swathes of criticism, but it also adds something that has been missing from Canada’s national discourse for decades – an acknowledgement of our remarkable peace and stability as a society and a celebration of our British institutions, from the monarchy to the Westminster model.

Public money goes to fund innumerable research projects and other initiatives meant to scrutinize, question, and change government policy. Canada’s museums and monuments include a great deal that is expressly critical of past Canadian governments. But politicians are not historians. As politicians, they are fundamentally interested in celebrating—not deriding—Canadian institutions and traditions, particularly when those traditions suit their partisan purposes and perspectives.

This applies to all parties. One wonders, for example, about the kind of spectacle the 25th anniversary of the Charter would have engendered had the Liberals been in power in 2007. One may wish that the Harper Conservatives had not played politics with the 25th anniversary of the country’s Constitution by downplaying and undermining it, but they did. Just as their opponents will with other issues.

When presented in isolation, the historical perspective of Canada’s three main political parties seems in conflict. But taken together they represent much of what defines Canada’s history. As thoughtful citizens, we should be able to delineate between Canada’s multifaceted historical reality and these individual narratives, while being grateful that we live in a nation that is still enthusiastic about recalling, and celebrating, its unique and compelling history.

1 Comment on "Parsing the Canadian history wars"

  1. I am Canadian. I will not tolerate a country who’s indigenous peoples are less valued, than their European occupiers, especially my own.

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