The History Wars: Where is the Media?

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Last week the Globe and Mail published an editorial about the video game Assassins Creed III . According to the Globe’s editors, the video game distorts the history of the American War of Independence by suggesting that native people (the protagonist, Ratonhnhaké:ton, is Mohawk) fought alongside the rebelling colonies.  Both gamers and historians quickly and resoundingly condemned the Globe‘s opinion as factually flawed (see here, here, and my own letter to the editor, here, for a sample of the critiques). I don’t want to rehash these critiques here. Instead, I want to ask some more pointed questions about why the Globe decided to run this piece in the first place.

It’s not everyday that a national newspaper decides to pick on an individual business over the quality of its product. Although Assassins Creed III launched with significant fanfare, the game is the fifth in this popular historically based series and it was unveiled more than two weeks before the Globe published its editorial. So why did the Globe attack a video game and its manufacturers?

According to the editorial, the video game marks an assault on our already beleaguered understanding of Canadian history. How can our students withstand the lure of this video game given the poor state of Canadian history instruction in our schools, the editors ask. They lament that Assassins Creed III “might be the only place that Canadian young people are learning about the Revolutionary War.”

As much as I share the editors’ concern for the health of Canadian history, I am skeptical about their motivation. The Globe has routinely failed to cover and comment on the significant cutbacks to the preservation of Canada’s documentary and material heritage.

In October, for example, the Globe covered James Moore’s chastisement of the provinces for not adequately teaching Canadian history.  If ever there was an occasion for a lamentation about the state of Canada’s history, this was it.  Here, the minister presiding over deep cuts to Canada’s national library and archives, and a cabinet minister in a government overseeing equally deep cuts at Parks Canada, had the gall to tell a Globe reporter “Canadian history is not dead. It’s alive and well. It’s just waiting to be told.” Despite this fairly clear-cut contradiction between Moore’s words and behaviour, the editors of the Globe remained silent.

So why instead did the Globe choose to tear a strip off Ubisoft, the makers of Assassins Creed III? The answer, I think, lies in the editorial’s framing: “Those who doubt the decision by the Canadian government to invest in the commemoration of the bicentennial of the War of 1812,” the editors write, “should pause and think about the implications for a country that fails to teach its history and celebrate its story.” These days, history is politics and Assassins Creed III provided the Globe with a low-stakes opportunity to endorse the Conservative Party of Canada’s vision of Canadian history, whereby the value of history is placed on its telling and celebration rather than its research and careful evaluation.

In linking their opinion about Assassins Creed III to government policy, the Globe‘s editorial writers have demonstrated that there exists a broader understanding beyond the community of professional historians, librarians, archivists and archaeologists that Canada’s past matters deeply to Stephen Harper and his government. The Conservatives use of Canada’s historical institutions (mainly Parks Canada, Library and Archives Canada, and the soon to be reformed Canadian Museum of Civilization) has considerable political capital and weight. Celebration of the War of 1812 and similar events, the editors suggest, is tightly linked to the value one must ascribe to Canada’s past and history.

In this view, history is the handmaiden of nationalism. Celebrating and emphasizing events like the War of 1812 or even the creation of a second history museum in Ottawa become the stuff of history.  While funding new research through Canada’s rich regionally based archaeological collections or making the holdings of Canada’s national library accessible outside of Ontario and Quebec is shunted to the sideline. At best under this vision, new research is seen as redundant, at its worse, it is seen as subversive.

Many of us working in history related fields don’t agree with this perspective.  Of course, there are many aspects of Canadian history worthy of celebration or commemorating (like the Charter of Rights and Freedoms or our participation in the World Wars, for example).  But these events should be informed by what we know about them, not just by their political or symbolic value and utility.

Perhaps more importantly – and this is why many of us are upset with these decisions – the Conservative government has chosen to fund these celebrations while limiting access to Canada’s documentary and material heritage and firing hundreds of employees whose job it was to maintain the integrity of Canada’s national history. Canadians are literally celebrating Canada’s past while simultaneously gutting the institutions that help us understand it.

Late last week the CAUT launched a new website called Canada’s Past Matters. This website promotes a vision of Canada’s past that is different from the one espoused by the Globe‘s editors and the Harper government. I strongly encourage you to take a look and read through the transformation that is taking place in the institutions and programs established to maintain and protect Canada’s heritage and history.

As a professional historian, these cuts have already begun to affect both my teaching and my research (I have listed how at the end of this post). But what concerns me most – and should concern all Canadians – is the limited access Canadians will have to the primary resources that teach us about our past. Canadians should not ignore these changes. They promise to have significant and noticeable effects on our country and identity.

The past has been part of the Conservative political agenda since they were first elected. It is time for the Globe and the rest of Canada’s media to start asking serious questions about the political use of Canada’s history.

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Here is a list of the closures that already (or will shortly) affect me:

  • The closure of Parks Canada’s Atlantic Service Centre whose historians and archaeologists have provided important feedback on my research and guided me in directions that I would not have otherwise taken (particularly in terms of Parks Canada’s grey literature).
  • The ending of Library and Archives Canada’s inter-library loan service, which has provided me with microfilm copies of primary source material as well as important secondary source material unavailable in my local library (even when I lived in Toronto). Now, if a book or microfilm reel is important enough for my research, I will have to travel to Ottawa to consult it.
  • The removal of Atlantic Canada’s archaeological collection to Ottawa.  I first encountered this collection through Saint Mary’s University’s archaeological field school. It was through this collection that I was inspired to pursue history as a profession.  I have since used it, and the collection at Louisbourg, in both my teaching and research. Now I will need to travel to Ottawa to consult this material, and hope and pray that there is someone employed there who is familiar with the artifacts and their context. It is also worth noting that this collection was just moved to a new facility in 2009.
  • The closure of the National Archival Development Program, which created linkages between national, regional and local archives. These networks created a national portal through which historians across the country could better understand the collections held in local archives. They were of vital importance while conducting my PhD research by helping me identify archives – particularly at the local level – that at first did not seem relevant to my research but held important collections or documents.

4 thoughts on “The History Wars: Where is the Media?

  1. Tom Peace Post author

    This is sad and shocking news. Louisbourg’s Public Archaeology program is fantastic and a model for public engagement. As you mention in your post, as a past participant in the program, I find this closure very troubling. To find out more about Louisbourg’s Public Archaeology Program and why I think it is significant see my post from September 2010: Hands-on History: Are the archaeologists leading the way to a new mode of public engagement? (http://activehistory.ca/2010/09/hands-on-history-are-the-archaeologists-leading-the-way-to-a-new-mode-of-public-engagement/)

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