Stephen Harper’s efforts to reshape what is researched, taught, and presented as Canadian history need to be viewed in the context of this prime minister’s larger and very illiberal agenda to shape the Canadian present and future.
Despite the embrace of neoliberal policies by both Progressive Conservative and Liberal governments in the 1980s and 1990s, Harper, as president of the National Citizens’ Coalition, claimed in 2000 that “Canada appears content to become a second-tier socialistic country, boasting ever more loudly about its economy and its social services to mask its second rate status.” Shortly afterwards, his name appeared first on the “firewall” letter to Premier Ralph Klein calling for Alberta to become a semi-sovereign state in order to stand up to centralizing, socializing Liberal federal governments.
Alberta, which had gone further than the federal government in rolling back the postwar welfare state and unashamedly declaring the right of capital to rule without state mediation on behalf of the public, was salvation to Harper. And when he re-entered federal politics, his goal was to spread the Alberta model to the federal sphere rather than contain it behind a firewall.
In my view, the attack of the Harper government on the independence of scientists, on all suggestions that the tar sands produce climate change, on proper statistics gathering, on sociology, on the welfare state, and on limits to the movement of capital lead naturally to the need to reshape our national history and national identity. How can he lead us to a brave new world of muscular entrepreneurship and manly attacks against nations that, for whatever reason, seem a threat to his aggressive capitalist agenda if we think of ourselves as a country of apologetic, moderate, caring peacemongers?
That national image is indeed overdrawn and, where it suits his agenda, Harper does try to confirm its mythologies. “We have no history of colonialism,” he told a press conference in Pittsburgh in 2009 at the announcement that Canada would host the G20 meeting in 2010. He knows better, but his overall message is that Canadians have little for which to atone except perhaps the forced sending of Native children to residential schools that Paul Martin has correctly labeled “cultural genocide.” So he cuts funds to Library and Archives Canada and Parks Canada that go to providing the means and the products that depict a history of diversity and controversy. And he tries to turn our Museum of Civilization into a Canadian Museum of History focused on honouring Canadian heroes and achievers, the forerunners of today’s intrepid Canadian global entrepreneurs who are, of course, never engaged in colonialism. Meanwhile he invests $28 million in an effort to create a history of [End Page 197] the War of 1812 without nuance and with intervention by the pmo with the Department of Canadian Heritage in every detail, including what dress the actress portraying Laura Secord should be wearing. He launches an investigation into provincial practices in the teaching of history to see whether certain World War I and World War II battles are emphasized. This kind of shallowing of the history pool leads to fantasyland history, to go with the fantasyland science and sociology that this government’s restrictive practices favour, and it needs to be opposed in the name of legitimate inquiry and rational thought.
The recently published draft of the Canadian Museum of History’s Research Strategy for the next ten years provides a vivid demonstration of the limited kind of history that the current government and its top civil servants in the area of historical research wish to allow. The Museum strategy, at the moment, spells out a small number of anniversaries that should be celebrated during the upcoming decade: the 150th birthday of Confederation, the 100th anniversary of the First World War, and the 75th anniversary of World War II. Accepting for the sake of argument that a focus on specific events as opposed to broad social themes is an acceptable approach for the new museum, it is striking that all the events chosen involve either state-level activities within...