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Blog Contest--Renewed History Wars: 21st Century Commemoration in Canada

Posted by Mary Chaktsiris
15 Avril 2014 - 10:33am

It seems Canadians are talking more and more about their past. In these renewed “History Wars,” this time fought in the more public domains of commemoration and education rather than in the writing of historians, we have already seen a few casualties.

Under the emerging new Canadian historical order The Historical Thinking Project, for example, lost its funding. Peter Seixas reflected on this very blog that this loss was perhaps “only a matter of time,” as the government funded Canadian Studies Program was re-branded as The Canada History Fund with different goals concerning the important of nationalism in history. “The Historical Thinking Project,” argued Seixas, “has never espoused ‘celebration’ or nationalism as goals for history education.” These new goals of government-funded historical initiatives are also discussed by Ian McKay and Jamie Smith who argue that new visions of Canada’s past are increasingly militarized. In Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety, they illustrate that Canada has sacrificed the firm public belief in Peacekeeping so prevalent in last fifty years of the 20th century in favour of a celebrated albeit narrowly defined jingoist history of Canada.

We are currently undergoing a fundamental restructuring of the Canadian national past, as demonstrated by the new Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa, renewed debates about sovereignty in Quebec, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools.  Newspaper articles, some of which are collected here by THEN/HiER, continue to appear in newspapers across the country as Canadians define and redefine the “fathers” of Confederation, the legacy of the Great War, and the process of creating Canada. We are also beginning a decade of almost continuous government-driven commemoration efforts with the two forthcoming major commemorations – of WW1 starting in 2014 and the Bicentennial in 2017 – coming just as the country recovers from the vast national commemoration of the War of 1812 between 2012 and 2014.

So what are Canadians, and Canadian students, saying about the commemoration of the past? I recently asked students in an upper year post-secondary history classroom about commemoration, and their answers revealed connections between commemoration and the belief in a common national past.

“Commemoration,” commented one student, “means honouring and respecting something worth remembering.” Building on the theme of remembrance, another wrote, “All people remember things in a different way, but commemoration means coming together to share our common stories.” Still another stated that commemoration represents “the ability to put aside personal disagreements to stand collectively in remembrance of the selfless actions of fellow Canadians acting on local, national, or international stages.” Still another mused, “Canadians should be commemorating the ‘small’ things that don’t necessarily always get recognized [but] none-the-less were a stepping stone in Canada’s historical progression.”

Progress. Nation. Positivity. Is this the meaning of commemoration in the 21st century? While Canadians are debating and redefining their pasts, the national narrative as presented in government-funded commemoration efforts (which often find their way into history classrooms) remains statically defined. The success of The Historical Thinking Project in implementing changes in Ontario and, soon, British Columbia’s history curricula are positive aspects in a sweeping trend of change in national historical narratives whose outcomes remain unclear.

Within the current climate of controversies about commemoration the path forward for history educators remains uncertain. While retaining the excellent work already done, the loss of The Historical Thinking Project forecasts the further erosion of non-nationalist focused critical thinking skills in Canadian schools. The shifting realities of a Canada that is changing its national views on the past is not generally reflected in our curricula, and students themselves seem to favour a simplistic national narrative over the more complicated process of inquiry-based learning.

Altering the history of a nation is not an easy task, as noted by curators at the new Canadian Museum of History (formerly the Museum of Civilization, a telling name change in itself). Curators commented, “there’s an awful lot to remember” and “we’ve got a lot of people to satisfy.” However, is history about satisfying people? Current debates illustrate that many Canadians are unsatisfied with their past as reflected back to them through commemoration. Yet what are we as educators to do with these debates about the past, when Canadians still cling to a belief in the utility of commemoration and a unified, positive, and national historical narrative?


A note on student contributions:
Students in an upper-year history seminar at Queen’s University answered two questions anonymously in March 2014 and granted consent for their use in this blog contest entry. The questions were:
1.     How do you define commemoration?
2.     What should Canadians commemorate?