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National Institutions and the Reshaping of Canadian History

Posted by Madeline Knicke...
23 November 2012 - 8:18pm

Although Canadian "history wars" are usually fought within academic realms, recent federal initiatives have made tangible the broader struggle over national memory and collective identity. Overhauls of the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC), new passport designs, and the controversial $100 bill, not to mention massive cuts to Library and Archives Canada (LAC), and a multi-million dollar campaign to celebrate the War of 1812, have generated significant debate and caught the attention of Canadians more than historical dilemmas usually do.

Throughout the summer, advertisements commemorating the War of 1812 adorned bus stops, and played in theatres before movies. The federal government announced it was dedicating $28 million to the War of 1812 ad campaign and to preserving sites associated with the war. Ian MacKay and Jamie Smith recently deconstructed what they call the government’s “New Warrior” rhetoric, arguing that there are political motivations behind the Harper Government’s mythologizing of the War of 1812.

This glut of spending on 1812 occurred as LAC rapidly de-escalated its services due to budget cuts of $9.6 million. Earlier this year, LAC announced other cuts, which including the elimination of 450 employees, and a 50% reduction in digitization services. In December, LAC will close its Interlibrary Loan services, which allowed Canadians across the country access to many of LAC’s materials through their home library (ie. without having to make the trip to Ottawa). These changes at LAC mean access to information about Canadian history will be increasingly limited.

In August, controversy erupted over the decision to redesign the new $100 bill that showed an Asian female scientist at work. Apparently, due to complaints from focus groups that Asian people don’t represent Canada, the image on the bill was changed to show a white woman instead. Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of Canada, issued an apology about the switch, but the new bills still represent the white scientist. (To be clear, the Bank of Canada is a self-governing institution; though its recent debacle certainly fits thematically the other developments, it has no official ties to the Conservative Party.)

Then, in October, Passports Canada released images of the new passport designs. In addition to high-tech security features, there are now watermark images on each page. Of those sixteen representations, which generally picture exactly who you would expect (Samuel de Champlain, the Fathers of Confederation, etc), only one page depicts women (Nellie McClung and the Famous Five). There are no people of colour in the passport, except, according to a Passports Canada spokeswoman, for one of the children playing hockey. There are also two images of war (the Vimy Memorial in France, and a montage of the Canadian military) and one image depicting white, male members of the RCMP and NWMP. Like the Bank of Canada, Passports Canada also used focus groups to determine who and what should be depicted in the new designs.

Finally, also last month, the Harper Government announced plans to rebrand the CMC as the Canadian Museum of History. Heritage Minister James Moore declared this new focus would emphasize “national achievements and accomplishments that have shaped our great country,” and examples of this will likely include many of the same events shown in the new passport designs.

These initiatives and especially the museum rebranding has faced considerable critique in the press, and especially from other political parties. Liberal Heritage critic Scott Simms said the rebranding would turn the museum “into a subsidiary of the Conservative Party spin machine,” while the NDP and Greens argue the money poured into the museum rebranding would be better spent elsewhere. In contrast, Conservatives view the issue as apolitical. Heritage Minister James Moore argues that the rebranding of the CMC “is not about a left-wing issue or a right-wing issue,” and instead argued that it “is the right thing to do, to build an institution that will span all of Canada.”

Though we don’t yet know what the reconfigured Canadian Museum of History will look like, our new libraries, archives, bills, and passports offer a disturbing glance at the future of historical memory in Canada. While these very public representations of Canada depict militarization and homogeneity, simultaneously our access to alternative histories, to the breadth and depth of the past in this country, is being increasingly limited. Regardless of political affiliations, this constitutes a dangerous situation, and historians and public interest groups are already working together to challenge this new governmental vision of the Canadian past.

To what extent should political parties have the power to reshape public representations of national memory and collective identity?


Photo Credit: Library and Archives Canada, photo by Padriac Ryan, Wikipedia Commons


This is a very good idea.

This is a very good idea. Reshaping Canadian history will teach the young minds of the next generations. The history of Canada covers the period from the arrival of Paleo-Indians thousands of years ago to the present day. Canada has been inhabited for millennia by distinctive groups of Aboriginal people, with distinct trade networks, spiritual beliefs, and social hierarchies. In every country, there is always a rich and colorful history that has to be shared to all its citizens and to the world as well.

Thanks a lot for this post. I

Thanks a lot for this post. I always believe that every country has a very rich history to tell. Canada is a country built upon the many qualities of its people in combination with the natural landscape of geography. Many of the great stories which can be told about the countries history, heritage and culture are set against the backdrop of giant settings such as the Canadian Shield, the Atlantic Coast, the Rocky Mountains, the Arctic and during the presence of giant men and women who shaped events.