restricted access The Politics of History Under Harper
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The Politics of History Under Harper

Since coming to power in 2006 (first as a minority government, and as of 2011 with a majority) the Conservatives of Prime Minister Stephen Harper have made a number of policy changes. Some of these changes are part of a longer progression; for example, today’s growing reliance on temporary workers is actually a trend dating back to the 1980s in Canadian immigration policy. Other changes are more brazen: consider the abandonment of the mandatory long-form census questionnaire or the 2011 decision that made Canada the first signatory to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol on international climate change. In contrast to such readily evident policy changes, the Harper Conservatives’ approach to Canadian history may at first glance seem rather nebulous. In fact, however, the Harper Conservatives have been involved in a conscious, explicit, and top-down effort to reshape the public symbols and representations of Canadian history, citizenship, and identity. As a consequence, and in addition to longstanding scholarly reasons for conversation across the humanities and social sciences divide, there is a compelling rationale to specifically bring historians and political scientists together in the context of today’s Canada to consider “history under Harper.”

In what follows, I address one specific and concerning trend, and that is public representations of Canada which reflect a singular narrative of Canadian history rather than narratives (in the plural). In October 2012, the Harper Conservatives announced a plan to transform the Canadian Museum of Civilization into a new Canadian Museum of History. This plan is still under development and will only be fully unveiled in 2017 in conjunction with the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Confederation. But already the plan has raised protests, including from the Canadian Association of University Teachers, which fears an attempt to displace the past focus of the Canadian Museum of Civilization on social history.

Since the 1970s, Canadian social historians have produced an incredibly rich body of scholarship concerned with understanding the experiences and narratives of diverse collectivities that were traditionally marginalized – like women, workers, minorities, immigrants, Indigenous peoples, and children. The findings of such scholarship, which puts a stress on ordinary people, clearly does something different than other branches of history (such as military, diplomatic or intellectual history). Moreover, such scholarship has also challenged perspectives in the social sciences that ignore the experiences, concerns, and agency of marginalized collectivities by only focusing on élites, institutions, or abstract structures. Additionally, the findings of social history have made it possible for educators not only in universities, but also in classrooms from kindergarten to high school, to bring a wider range of materials [End Page 215] and experiences to bear on teaching social studies in Canada’s increasingly diverse schools.

The apparent rebranding of the Canadian Museum of Civilization (and threatened undermining of social history) is not a discrete event confined to the national capital region. In fact, there is a remaking of Canadian history and symbolism that is being finessed in a variety of arenas. Moreover, the remaking of Canadian history and symbolism exhibits a clear pattern in which military history and patriotic citizenship are valorized over social history and multicultural citizenship. Perhaps this is most clearly illustrated in the new citizenship guide, Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship, which was first released in 2009. In this guide, military events, military figures, and the British monarchy assume a superordinate status in both text and image. It is worth recalling that in his capacity as Minister for Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney presented this guide as aimed not only at new immigrants studying for the citizenship test but at the national memory of all Canadians. Since such Canadian historical realities as the World War II internment of Japanese Canadians and the state-church run residential schools for Aboriginal children are treated as unfortunate mistakes on an otherwise praiseworthy record, it would be hard to escape concluding that the past, and all that is good and glorious, stems from war and empire. Put differently, it seems to be militarized patriotism, and pride in Canada’s colonial ties to Britain, that underline the Conservative government’s construction of...