By Kaitlin Wainwright
Recently, James Moore, Minister of Canadian Heritage, announced “a series of new programs to support Canada’s history.” While the federal government continues to lay off staff at Parks Canada, national museums and galleries, and Library and Archives Canada, the Canadian public are being told that we need to rebrand our history and that new measures are needed to help make history come alive. John G. McAvity, Executive Director of the Canadian Museums Association emphasized that “this includes not just formal or academic history, but more importantly the stories of Canada, pleasant and unpleasant as they are, of everyday Canadians.”
Although the announcement included the formation of a “Canada History Week” (July 1-7) and funding support for existing Canadian Heritage programs – such as the Celebrate Canada program – the highlight, according to most media outlets, is a new series of Heritage Minutes produced by the Historica-Dominion Institute.
The Heritage Minutes, for those who weren’t near a TV set or in a movie theatre in the 1990s, were a collection of minute-long historical microdramas that captured the essence of an element of Canadian history. High production values and government support made them widely successful and tremendously quotable.
Twenty years later, those of us who first became enamoured with Canadian history through them no doubt feel a certain amount of nostalgia. Their historical value has been examined in the academic sphere by Peter Hodgins in his forthcoming book The Canadian Dream: History, Myth and Nostalgia in the Heritage Minutes (Wilfrid Laurier University Press). Many Heritage Minutes feature Canadian symbols, such as Winnie the Pooh or the Inukshuk, which Jeff Ruhl explores in his PhD dissertation. Ruhl argues that the Inukshuk, in part through its appearance in a 1994 Heritage Minute, rose to prominence on the national stage, becoming part of our national political economy.
Indeed, burnt toast took on a whole new meaning after the airing of one of the original Heritage Minutes, in which Dr. Wilder Penfield is shown perfecting his “Montreal Procedure,” a neurological approach effective in the treatment of epilepsy. Regardless of whether you loved them or found them forgettable, it can be said that their original thematic scope was broad, looking at the stories of Canada and everyday Canadians.
In the past seven years, however, only two additional Heritage Minutes have been produced. Importantly, these give us some insight into what we might be able to expect from the future series.
Both of the new Heritage Minutes deal with the War of 1812 and both were produced during the bicentennial programming. The first, released last October, focussed on the contribution of Richard Pierpont – a Black Loyalist who petitioned for an all-Black unit that would fight in the Battle of Queenston Heights. The second, released this month, as part of Aboriginal Heritage Month celebrations, tells the story of Mohawk Chief John Norton (Teyoninhokovrawen) and about 100 members of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) who warded off American forces for several hours at Queenston Heights.
It’s exciting to see the inclusion of an aboriginal narrative among the new Heritage Minutes, as well as representation of the role of Black Loyalists. Yet, the emphasis remains placed on commemorating history at an opportune anniversary. The programming announcement made last week highlighted the Celebrate Canada Funding and the “Building Communities through Arts and Heritage” that is available for activities organized either during “Celebrate Canada” period (June 21 to July 7) or that commemorate a “local historical anniversary of 100 years or greater in increments of 25 years”. Naturally, these new programs come as the government begins to ramp up efforts to create national pride towards the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation in 2017.
There seems to be a paradigm shift happening in public history in Canada, wherein it is simply not good enough to create an exciting exhibit, to produce material from new findings in the archives, or to develop a digital application that renders visible the hidden layers of our local heritage. Instead, the local narrative more frequently requires a national lens and these histories are more often tied to an anniversary.
Sure, this sort of funding presents the opportunity to highlight history. But However, by placing financial value on historical anniversaries it inadvertently tells the public that history outside of commemoration is unimportant and unworthy of our time. Restricting the stories of our collective past to anniversaries strengthens the power of history in some ways, but dilutes it in others.
The challenge of these new programs, including the Heritage Minutes, is that they will not necessarily do what John G. McAvity says that we need. We do need the stories of “everyday Canadians.” Those stories, however, are not found in anniversaries, milestones, or commemorative moments. They are complex and are often told in local and regional dialects rather than through a grand, national narrative voice. They require access to the archives, and the critical thinking of those trained as historians to distil research into findings. Public history at its best is not only that which strikes a chord and leaves an audience wanting to know more. It is also well-researched and clearly presents the nuances of the past. While nostalgia of the Heritage Minutes is proof of the importance of striking a chord with citizens about public history, not all stories can be told in under sixty seconds.
Kaitlin Wainwright is a graduate of Carleton University’s Public History Program