Cohen: The politicization of Canada’s history

Calgary Herald

By Andrew Cohen, Calgary Herald August 21, 2012

Andrew Cohen

Andrew Cohen

Photograph by: Lynn Ball , The Ottawa Citizen

The latest offensive in the federal government’s campaign to promote the bicentennial of the War of 1812 comes in that diverting one-minute film appearing on big and small screens this summer.

The film offers a microcosm of the War of 1812: ranks of red-coated soldiers, marching in lockstep, shouldering muskets with fixed bayonets, firing on command. Feverish violins, and a melange of breathless players: Laura Secord, Tecumseh, Sir Isaac Brock.

Over this the narrator intones darkly: “The United States invaded our territory. But we defended our land. We stood side-by-side, and we won the fight for Canada!”

It evokes The Heritage Minutes, the popular series of historical vignettes conceived by the gifted Patrick Watson. They introduced Canadian history to a generation of young Canadians who were not learning the country’s past in school.

The difference is that those films from the 1990s — which have an eerie afterlife on late-night local television — were both accurate and entertaining.

This treatment of 1812 is propaganda. It gets the history wrong (no one won the war, which ended in stalemate.) Worse, it misses an opportunity to understand the consequences of the conflict.

If the film does indeed pique an interest in our unconscious country, the money (some $50 million went into it and a host of other 1812 anniversary activities) has been well spent.

But in its jumped-up jingoism, the film misses the point: it established two centuries of enduring peace between Canada and the United States. Two hundred years!

Are there any other countries in the world of comparable size that can make that claim? Could Canadians have better neighbours than Americans, and they us?

In North America, we developed a tolerance for each other. This made war over differences of territory, borders, trade, commerce, security and foreign wars unthinkable.

That should be why we celebrate the War of 1812, not this ersatz appeal to patriotism and swaggering triumphalism over a conflict that “we” (whatever that means for Canada, which did not yet exist) didn’t win.

Then again, the federal government has a peculiarly partisan view of Canada’s past, focused excessively on a reverence of things military (laudatory, up to a point) and a devotion to the monarchy (sophomoric, and provocative in French Canada).

Its worse sin, though, is the government’s selective treatment of our past. It is the politicization of history.

Let’s applaud recognizing the singular contribution of Sir John A. Macdonald, most recently by attaching his name to the Ottawa River Parkway. (This is largely due to the efforts of the tireless Bob Plamondon to put it on Wellington Street, which runs past Parliament. His proposal was killed by the monarchists and neo-colonials). The government has also named the former Bank of Montreal building in Ottawa for Macdonald.

With the airport and a bridge also bearing his name, Macdonald is well honoured in the national capital. But other prime ministers are not, which is fine with the Conservatives — unless, of course, they were Conservatives.

So, the newly christened John G. Diefenbaker Building sits next to the Lester B. Pearson Building on Sussex Drive. That the foreign ministry bears Pearson’s name is so annoying to the minister, John Baird, that he removed the name of the building from the address on his business card. Pearson was Canada’s most distinguished diplomat, and a Nobel Laureate; in Conservative Canada, he’s a nonentity.

The politicization of history plays out in different ways. The Conservatives found money to celebrate the end of the war in Libya with an expensive military display on Parliament Hill, but refused to mark the 30th anniversary of the patriation of the BNA Act and the entrenchment of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (supported, incidentally, by Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives and all their provincial cousins in 1982).

In “Discover Canada”, the manual distributed by the federal government to prospective citizens, Macdonald is mentioned but Laurier, King, Pearson and Trudeau are not. Nor, amid the celebration of our military exploits, is Canada’s role in peacekeeping or its stellar postwar diplomacy.

The manual is important, one of Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s signal achievements. But its history is selective.

Sure, all parties play this game. The Liberals named Toronto’s airport after Pearson and Montreal’s after Trudeau as the Conservatives named Saskatoon’s after Diefenbaker. If the New Democrats take power, expect to see Tommy Douglas Bridge and Jack Layton University.

The trouble is that it should not take a like-minded government to honour great Canadians, whoever they are. We write our history in monument, memorials and museums, as well as in film and books. This is our history and these are our nation-builders, whatever their partisanship. Like national parks, they belong to all of us.

A mature people understands this and remembers its great men and women appropriately, whatever their party. A mature people rejects the politicization of history.

Andrew Cohen, the founding president of The Historica-Dominion Institute, teaches at Carleton University.

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