How Stephen Harper is rewriting history

Starting with a $25-million museum overhaul, the Conservatives want to change the way Canadians perceive their past
Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks after announcing his new cabinet in a swearing in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Monday, July 15, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Blair Gable

Mark O’Neill, president of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the country’s biggest and most-visited museum, is typically an upbeat guy. But as he leads a reporter around Canada Hall, the winding stroll through Canadian history that is one of the museum’s central features, he doesn’t exactly offer a seminar in cheery tour-guide patter.

At about the midpoint of the walk, which starts with the Vikings arriving and ends in a 1960s-vintage airport lounge, O’Neill steps into one of his favourite installations—an intact early 20th-century Ukrainian Catholic church, painstakingly relocated to the museum from Smoky Lake, Alta. “Look around,” he says. “You will learn virtually nothing about Ukrainian Canadians. You will learn nothing about the first Canadian internment camps. You will learn nothing about the Ukrainian community today.”

His frustration is not limited to how the charming St. Onuphrius Church seems cut off from any wider historical context. In fact, O’Neill voices similar complaints at just about every turn. He shakes his head at the way the hall’s Acadian section teaches about how early French settlers farmed salt marshes on the Bay of Fundy, but little on their expulsion in 1755. The mock-up of a square in 18th-century New France is lovely, and O’Neill admits it’s popular, but he complains that it conveys next to nothing about actual historical events. There’s a convincing Red River cart, but he bemoans the lack of much, aside from a lonely text panel on the wall, about Louis Riel’s rebellions. A little further along, he slumps into a vinyl kitchen chair in a meticulously reconstructed—O’Neill actually calls it “sort of bizarre”—Chinese laundry. “How does this deal with Chinese-Canadian history?” he asks.

O’Neill gathers all these flaws and failings together in a sweeping critique. “It’s not sufficient,” he sums up, “that you can walk through this hall and learn very little about the history of Canada.” He’s willing to be so blunt because the government has given him $25 million to overhaul Canada Hall as his museum is rebranded the Canadian Museum of History. And the revamping of this major federal institution—in its prime location on the Ottawa River in Gatineau, Que., just across from Parliament Hill—is just one element in the Conservatives’ wider strategy for changing the way Canadians perceive their past. It’s all timed to build to a crescendo for the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017.

A history-heavy advertizing blitz leading up to the sesquicentennial, with a proposed $20-million budget, is in the works at Heritage Canada. Last month, the department announced $12 million for a Canada History Fund. It will pay for, among other things, new awards for outstanding high school history students and teachers. Who could object? Yet the push is prompting angry charges that the Tories are manipulating history for ideological purposes. The NDP accuses them of “remaking the Museum of Civilization in their image,” pointing to the high-profile commemorations of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 as evidence of a Conservative bias for celebrating military exploits over, say, exploring social history.

Professional historians hotly debate the issue, too. The Canadian History Association detects “a pattern of politically charged heritage policy” that includes both the changes underway at O’Neill’s museum and the War of 1812 publicity campaign. “Canadian history has been conscripted,” declared Queen’s University history professor Ian McKay in a widely noted 2011 lecture, provocatively titled, “The Empire Fights Back: Militarism, Imperial Nostalgia, and the Right-Wing Reconceptualization of Canada.”

McKay charges Stephen Harper’s government with promoting a narrow, war-obsessed version of Canadian history, a slant he traces largely to the writings of prominent historians like Jack Granatstein and David Bercuson. Granatstein, in particular, is an inspiration for the Harper government’s approach to history. James Moore, who as heritage minister from the fall of 2008 until this month’s cabinet shuffle, which saw him become minister of industry, spearheaded the government’s history offensive. Moore often mentions “Jack” in speeches and, in an interview with Maclean’s, Granatstein is the sole historian he refers to by name.

And the book Moore cites is Who Killed Canadian History?, the polemical 1998 bestseller in which Granatstein framed his side of the debate that’s still raging. He complained that political and military history had been all but banished from Canada’s classrooms in favour of social themes, especially trendy topics such as regional and ethnic history. In danger of being lost, Granatstein wrote, was the shared military, political and economic history that undergirds “the larger national and pan-Canadian identity.”

Granatstein’s lament is echoed in Moore’s speeches. “We live in a country where so many young people aren’t taught and don’t know and don’t have access to those stories that made this country so great and so brilliant,” he said recently. Harper’s top election strategists, including the late Sen. Doug Finley, have framed patriotism, especially linked to military heritage, as a key element in the Conservative brand.

Still, Moore says no Conservative politician will order federal museums to showcase any particular version of the past. “Not once have I ever spoken to Mark O’Neill and said, ‘Hey, do a little more Terry Fox, a little less Anne of Green Gables,’ ” he says. “The barrier between the minister and the museums is very explicit in the Museums Act..” Critics worry, though, that Moore has already steered the museum, and federal history programs in general, in a new direction.

The museum’s 1990 mandate grandly directed it to “increase, throughout Canada and internationally, interest in, knowledge and critical understanding of and appreciation and respect for human cultural achievements and human behaviour.” But Moore’s new law adjusts the core purpose to enhancing “Canadians’ knowledge, understanding and appreciation of events, experiences, people and objects that reflect and have shaped Canada’s history and identity.” Dominique Marshall, a history professor at Carleton University in Ottawa and president of the Canadian Historical Association red-flags the dropping of “critical understanding” as a signal that the museum’s job is now to popularize history, rather than probe the past.

Non-experts might wonder if that isn’t just professorial fussing over a few words. But O’Neill’s predecessor, Victor Rabinovitch, who headed the museum from 2000 to 2011, also objects strenuously. “Why would you abandon the word ‘civilization’?” he asks. “Why would you reduce so significantly the mandate of the museum…?” Not surprisingly, Rabinovitch, now an adjunct policy professor at Queen’s University, answers his own questions. “My feeling,” he says, “is that they want to invent a type of muscular history that would link into a form of muscular identity.”

By “they,” of course, he means Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. The history debaters tend to see party stripes translating into starkly contrasting perspectives on Canada’s past. A rough sketch might go like this: Liberals favoured history that elevates the experiences of ordinary people and emphasizes social topics like immigration, while Conservatives prefer “great man” history, Canada’s British heritage and plenty of war stories. There’s some truth to that, but it’s not so simple. In fact, key steps in the direction now associated with the Tories actually began under the Liberals—with the Canadian Museum of Civilization often at the centre of shifting ideas about history and national identity.

Almost from the time the museum opened in a dramatic new building in 1989, it has been a lightning rod for arguments about the way Canada’s past is presented. Strongly influenced by Disney World’s EPCOT Center, which had opened in 1982, the museum featured too many mock-up scenes and replicas for old-school visitors, who longed to see real artifacts behind glass. As well, the trend in university history departments toward studying everyday life—rather than landmark events and famous figures—strongly influenced those Canada Hall exhibits and other sections of the museum.

When Rabinovitch took over in 2000, he began trying to address those criticisms. Too much emphasis on common folk? He brought in grand personalities in a new exhibit area spotlighting notable Canadians, from Sir John A. Macdonald to Mordecai Richler. Not enough real-McCoy artifacts? More were installed, including Macdonald’s whisky flask and Richler’s typewriter.

But the biggest news for fans of traditional history would be the creation of a new Canadian War Museum. Championed by both Rabinovitch and Granatstein, the ambitious project was financed by Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government. Since opening in 2005 as a branch plant of the Museum of Civilization, but housed in its own striking low-slung building just west of Parliament Hill, it’s a proven crowd-pleaser. After they won power in 2006, the Conservatives embraced the war museum as a model for conveying a compelling national historical narrative.

Before being promoted to run its parent museum in 2011, O’Neill headed the war museum for four years. He touts its backbone of permanent exhibits, which trace the country’s war history from Aboriginal conflicts through the World Wars to the post-Cold War era. Unlike the Canada Hall’s preoccupation with daily life, the war museum’s walk through history blends stories of top military and political leaders, and major battles, with rank-and-file and home-front experiences. “Key players are there, ordinary Canadians are there,” O’Neill says. “You learn the history of the country through the voices and faces of the men, women and institutions that created that history.”

According to O’Neill, that mix of top-down and bottom-up viewpoints offers plenty of room for warts-and-all history lessons. He doesn’t disguise his frustration with skeptics who presume his reworked hall of history will be dominated by upbeat episodes. For instance, he expects internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War to be explored, along with the 1970 October Crisis and the suspension of civil liberties in Quebec.

But O’Neill is battling suspicion that his museum’s goals and the government’s aims are blurring. He asserts his independence; Moore declares he respects it. The Canadian History Association, however, has written that changing the museum’s name and mandate “appears to reflect a new use of history to support the government’s political agenda.” Moore has said that in the run-up to the country’s 150th birthday, federal museums should tell Canadians “more about the achievements and accomplishments that have shaped our great country.”

When it comes to putting a patriotic gloss on the past, Conservatives regard their $28-million War of 1812 commemorations as the gold standard. Yet a poll early this year, conducted for the Institute for Research of Public policy, found that just 28.6 per cent of Canadians supported those celebrations, far below the 47.1 per cent who would have favoured a celebration of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (Harper pointedly declined to do anything to mark last year’s 30th birthday of the Charter, Liberal icon Pierre Trudeau’s signature achievement.)

Milestones coming up soon might prove easier to sell than the 1812 border clashes. Next year marks a century since the First World War erupted and 75 years since the start of the Second World War. In 2015, it will have been 200 years since Sir John A. Macdonald’s birth and 50 since the adoption of Canada’s Maple Leaf flag. Heritage officials are looking at ways to work all these anniversaries, and more, into the ramp-up to the big splash in 2017 when Canada turns 150.

For Conservatives already preoccupied with history, the potential for sustained spinning of patriotic history is obvious. Ads will air. Exhibitions will tour. Through it all, if the Tories are still in power after 2015’s fixed election date, their critics will no doubt go on pouncing on signs of a distorted portrayal of Canadian history right up to the sesquicentennial.

And at the country’s biggest museum, a new walk through Canada’s past, sprawling over 4,000 sq. m on two levels, will open (if all goes on schedule) in time for the 2017 festivities. “It will be the single largest pan-Canadian narrative ever developed,” O’Neill enthuses, casting ahead with a gusto so lacking when he tours the current version. Presumably, he’ll be able to guide visitors around the revamped hall without pausing to point out the history it fails to teach.