The recently announced House of Commons Heritage Committee’s review of history programs, and other related activities of the current federal government, have captured the attention of Canada’s professional historians and other Canadians. Any governmental initiatives in Canadian history deserve our considered attention, especially when they involve efforts by the federal government to influence the study of history, and so this collection compiled by Penny Bryden and Matt James is timely. Regarding the implications of the Committee’s review I will focus my remarks on two aspects: the Canadian Historical Association’s position, and my own experience as a public historian as it relates to the representation of the past in federal programs devoted to Canadian history.
In the minutes of its 29 April 2013 meeting the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage said it was initiating “a thorough and comprehensive review of significant aspects in Canadian history.” The Committee did not state its reasons for the review but its concerns are implicit in the highlighted list of topics in the minutes. Heavily weighted to military topics, the minutes conspicuously omitted other major areas of Canadian history, especially social history, which has been perhaps the dominant sub-field of scholarly historical research on Canada’s history over the last 40 years. In that period social historians have documented numerous dimensions of the previously neglected histories of women, working people, Aboriginal peoples, immigrant communities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people, among other previously neglected groups. These important aspects of our past, and the associated historiography which has changed how we think about Canadian history, need to be included among the issues to be examined by the Committee. There can be no turning back the clock on the knowledge advances of the historical discipline over the last two generations.
Since the debate at the Standing Senate Committee on National Defence and Veterans’ Affairs and its recommendations on the question of the Bomber Command panels at the Canadian War Museum several years ago, representatives of the Canadian Historical Association (cha) have been vigilant about attempts by political bodies to revise or rewrite our country’s history. When the Heritage Committee’s review of history was announced, the cha responded quickly with a letter to the Committee, the issuing of a press release and an interview with cbc Radio. The cha recognizes the Heritage Committee’s prerogative to undertake reviews of culture and heritage programs under federal jurisdiction and would not prejudge the current review. However, the review could only aspire to credibility if this process were professionalized, drawing [End Page 203] on the knowledge and insights of Canada’s professional community of historians, and related disciplines of archaeology, anthropology and others.
The notion that small “p” politics might factor into government-sponsored or government-directed historical studies does not come as a surprise. Conservative governments have promoted the study of élite historical figures such as political or military heroes, while progressive administrations have occasionally promoted the history of historically marginalized groups, such as women and Aboriginal people. Yet both conservative and progressive administrations have been excessively focused on the nation-state, expressing a common political agenda of patriotic flag-waving. Provided that government historians and other professionals charged with carrying out federal history projects are scrupulous in following the rules of evidence in their research, fair in the treatment of alternative interpretations, and pluralistic in including different or alternative perspectives, political motives do not necessarily pose a problem. What is problematic is the writing or interpretation of history as an exercise in promoting a particular view of the country while suppressing or drowning out other voices.
The Committee states that it will be enlisting “witness testimony, including firsthand accounts of significant periods” of Canadian history. The cha encourages the wide-ranging study of Canadian history in all its diversity. If so, it is essential that the witnesses include representatives of the major professional historical associations who are best placed to help ensure a fair and balanced approach to the identification of significant periods as well as to the important role of Canada’s regions and diverse communities in our...