POLITICS

Fresh focus on Canadian milestones stokes fear Conservatives rewriting history

10/16/2013 02:45 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST
OTTAWA - The Conservative government's focus on a series of upcoming national milestones has stoked fears that the Tories are trying to put a stop to what it considers a liberal-lensed perspective on Canadian history.

Wednesday's throne speech highlighted the government's plans to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017, the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War and to mark the end of Canada's Afghanistan mission by honouring those who "made the ultimate sacrifice combating the spread of terrorism."

"From the founding of New France, to the fight for Canada in the War of 1812; from the visionary achievement of Confederation, to our victory at Vimy Ridge, Canadians have repeatedly triumphed over long odds to forge a great country, united and free," said Gov. Gen. David Johnston.

The speech also said the government intends to "honour the proud history of our Canadian Armed Forces by restoring our military traditions."

The Tories have already announced their intent to resurrect Canadian Army rank insignia, names and badges to traditional uniforms and have reinserted the word "royal" into the titles of Canada's military institutions.

Some historians have complained bitterly that the Conservatives have been paying short shrift to Canada's social, medical and technological history in favour of unduly emphasizing the country's military triumphs.

"What I find really unsettling about this government is that they are forcing a view of Canada on the country that most Canadians don't accept," said Ian McKay, a history professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

"It's the transformation of history into myth, a romanticizing of our military history. It's hyper-militarism, very authoritarian, and it represents an aggressive attack on Canada's peacekeeping tradition."

But Jack Granatstein, a historian who has long advocated a greater emphasis on Canadian military history, dismissed such concerns as "nonsense." Indeed, Granatstein said he's worried the Tories are going to skimp on the First World War in their plans to celebrate Canada's military history.

"I am told they're only putting in as much money for World War One as they did for the War of 1812, about $30 million or something, and that's just pathetic," Granatstein said.

"This was a world-changing event in which Canadians played an absolutely major role and it needs to be commemorated in a big way."

Granatstein conceded, however, that he could "see some of the difficulties" for the government in commemorating the First World War.

"Quebec basically opted out of the war, and it's pretty hard to paint it any other way, and it would be a bit difficult for the government to paint it as a great national experience when a third of the country opted out. But in English-speaking Canada, this was a huge event with major social ramifications as well."

Granatstein, who once headed up the Canadian War Museum, also scoffed at complaints from McKay and other historians — including those at the Canadian History Association — about the government's laser-sharp focus on Canada's military history.

"It's ignorance, it's stupidity, and it's been my view that it's complete nonsense," he said.

"Obviously I am generalizing, but historians are all NDPers, they hate the Tories with a passion, and they're all social historians, so they think any government that's going to commemorate the War of 1812 — which they have all said is unimportant, which is just silly — is a war-mongering government."

Of particular concern to many historians, however, is the government's $25 million overhaul of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, which will soon become the Canadian Museum of History. That rebranding is considered just one puzzle piece in a broader Conservative strategy to alter the way Canadians view their history.

The speech from the throne vowed to establish "the Canadian Museum of History to share the story of Canada with pride."

Dominique Marshall, president of the Canadian History Association, urged the government on Wednesday to consult with historians as it determines how to spend money commemorating Canada's history.

"Pride is important, but it's not the only thing," she said. "It's very important to examine those aspects of our history that might be considered more difficult — tensions, debates, mistakes that were made."

First Nations and Canada's prehistoric past might also be neglected in the drive to instil pride and commemorate military triumphs, she added.

Earlier this year, the Canadian History Association said changing the museum's name and mandate "appears to reflect a new use of history to support the government's political agenda."

The museum's 1990 mandate stressed the need to increase an "interest in, knowledge and critical understanding" of Canadian history.

Its new mandate, implemented under former heritage minister James Moore — now industry minister — is aimed at boosting Canadians' "knowledge, understanding and appreciation of events, experiences, people and objects that reflect and have shaped Canada's history and identity."

McKay said he considers that change in language — particularly the lack of the words "critical understanding" — to be startling, although it may seem subtle to anyone not a committed student of Canadian history.

"It's sort of like a Hockey Hall of Fame approach to history — to celebrate and mythologize," he said. "It more than verges on propaganda."

Granatstein, however, shrugged off complaints about the new museum.

"They're forgetting, of course, that there is the Canadian War Museum that does all the war history, and it's not going to be duplicated by the Canadian Museum of History," he said.

Documents obtained by The Canadian Press show that Canada's official commemorative plan leading up to the country’s 150th birthday highlights an arsenal of battles and wars, a smattering of sports and a nod to the Arctic.

The government’s Interdepartmental Commemorations Committee has also singled out the 200th anniversary of the births of Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir George-Etienne Cartier as well as the 175th of Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s entry into the world.

The list also includes the 50th anniversary of the Canada Games, the 125th of the Stanley Cup and the 100th of both the National Hockey League and a Canadian expedition to the Arctic.

The various milestones are to be celebrated with ceremonies, education campaigns, plaques, books, coins, performances and even an ice sculpture.