The politicization of Canada’s history

Times Colonist


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 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 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.

This politicization 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 Sir Wilfrid Laurier, William Lyon Mackenzie King, Lester Pearson and Pierre 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, but its history is selective.

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 in Ottawa.

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