Tories gear up for (historical) war
NationalPost.com – FullComment
13/05/13. Thomas Peace
Earlier this month, the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage decided to launch a “comprehensive review of significant aspects in Canadian history.” Their initial terms of reference were to focus on provincial education systems; municipal, provincial, and federal heritage programs; and specific historical topics. After much criticism, they will no longer examine provincial education systems.
It’s nice to see that the government, who forms a majority of this parliamentary committee, has such interest in our country’s past, the study’s terms of reference directly reflect the Conservative government’s desire to manage Canada’s past and reverse the outcome of a two-decade long debate among historians.
The committee, whose study began last week, has a relatively narrow purview. Primarily, they want to learn about Confederation and the constitution, suffrage, the key battles during the World Wars, the Korean War, peacekeeping, and Afghanistan. They plan to consult eye-witnesses, national museum staff and the broadcasting industry, in order to determine best practices, new methods and potential opportunities to preserve the past.
The subject matter of the study, and absence of professional historians and history educators among the list of consultants, should not surprise us. The structure of the committee’s work reflects the politicization of a decades-long debate among historians, museums-specialists and history educators.
In the 1990s, a war raged. Known as the “history wars,” scholars argued over appropriate subject matter and methods for understanding the past. In Canada, one side of this debate believed that the past should focus on politics, economics and the military; the other side felt that the past was broader. Looking more at society and culture, they argued for a more nuanced understanding that included the contributions of women, immigrants, indigenous peoples and workers. (There was admittedly some overlap between the two camps, as matters of degree and shades of gray were debated.)
Today, this battle has subsided. The work of the latter side is better integrated into a national narrative. Yet although the “history wars” have drawn to a close among historians, they have continued within the Conservative party. In 2010, for example, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenney warned the National Forum on Canadian History that some historians place too much emphasis on social history, oppression and injustice. Just a few months later, in his fifth anniversary address, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, “You cannot build a united country by burying and rewriting its history,” another dig at the historical profession. And most recently, in October, Heritage Minister James Moore targeted history’s absence from some provincial curricula (where it is packaged as social studies) as an important national issue.
In its policies, the Harper government has pushed back against the social and cultural contributions to Canadian history. They shifted the narrative of the citizenship guide, for example, to more clearly emphasize the monarchy, military and Canada’s British heritage. Their decisions about what events to commemorate reflect a similar trend. In 2012, they chose to bankroll War of 1812 commemorations while largely ignoring the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Constitutional repatriation. This Standing Committee seems to be similarly focused: The majority of the specific subject areas it will investigate are military related.
Our government has struck a committee to investigate a policy area on which it has already made many of the key decisions
Since achieving a majority government, the Conservatives have also diminished public access to key heritage institutions. One year ago, they cancelled the National Archival Development Program. This was a small $1.7-million program that helped support local archives, and that a 2010 audit deemed “adequate and efficient.” Another 2010 evaluation warned that “should the NADP be discontinued, institutions would likely have difficulties in preserving and making available to Canadians the nation’s archival collection.” Similarly, Library and Archives Canada significantly reduced their interlibrary loan program, making it more difficult for Canadians beyond Ottawa to access non-digitized archival collections. And finally, amid a flurry of cutbacks, the impact of which we will see this summer, Parks Canada cancelled its Education Outreach Program, which tied park programming to school curricula.
In other words, our government has struck a committee to investigate a policy area on which it has already made many of the key decisions.
This is unfortunate, because a study like this has potential. Though I’m not sure a parliamentary committee is the best place for it, a national study examining variations in standards and courses of study in our provincial education systems or between municipal, provincial and federal heritage programs would be welcome, especially if conducted before programs are cut or cancelled. The committee’s framing and terms of reference, however, suggest its conclusions are already drawn.
If the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage truly wants to understand how Canadians engage with the past, it needs to set aside some preconceptions about our country’s history and talk with a wider range of Canadian historians and history educators. They might be surprised by the constructive dialog that ensues.
Thomas Peace is a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow at Dartmouth College and a founding co-editor of ActiveHistory.ca.
< http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2013/05/13/history-for-monday/ >