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The Ideological Work of Commemoration

Jamie Swift

In the 1985 Argentinian film, The Official Story, one of the characters, a student, angrily proclaims that his country’s history textbooks had been “written by assassins.” Stories, as we know, vary considerably in the telling. The dominant narrative – to use the now shopworn term – tends to be recounted by the loudest voices. Hardly assassins. But often people with only a passing acquaintance with evidence.

So it is with the Official Story of Canada’s wars.

Just as the Harper government’s spasm of bellicose patriotic storytelling got underway with the centenary of the War of 1812, Governor General David Johnson came up with a curious claim. “When we study our history and the wars in which we fought, the wars overseas, it has been to purchase our freedom, our liberties.”

Such bloodletting would, presumably, include such noble struggles in buying Canadian liberty as the Boer War, fought to ensure British mining companies gained access to South Africa’s vast gold deposits. Tellingly, the government recently added the South African war to Ottawa’s National War Memorial, ignoring the civilian death toll in concentration camps run by the British that far exceeded the number of actual Boer fighters killed in combat.

We can, I suppose, expect the Official Story from Governors General who have of late revived an earlier tradition of appearing in military garb, adorned with medals.