Seizing Canada’s Past: Politics and the Reinvention of Canadian History

Former National Archives building, Ottawa

By Sean Kheraj

The conversation has been ongoing among Canadian historians for the past few years, especially since the federal government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, altered the contents of the official citizenship guide for new Canadians to place greater emphasis on military history and the monarchy while ignoring or downplaying the country’s history of progressive social policy, multiculturalism, and social justice movements. Many Canadian historians have been concerned that the Conservative Party of Canada is attempting to reinvent the narrative of the country’s past for its own political purposes.

Professor Ian McKay explicitly outlined this case in his keynote address at the 2011 New Frontiers in Graduate History conference at York University. He has also published a complete articulation of this argument in his forthcoming book (co-authored with Jamie Swift) called, Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety. A group of historians recently collaborated to publish the People’s Citizenship Guide: A Response to Conservative Canada in an effort to counterbalance the refashioning of Canadian history to suit the political interests of the governing party in Ottawa.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s recent transformation of the federal budget and his government’s policy of mass layoffs of federal employees has initiated a takeover of the public financing of historical research by the political branch of government. Cuts to the funding of the federal government’s three independent granting councils, including the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), constitute a total budget reduction of more than $40 million dollars. While the funding to SSHRC is set to be reduced, Heritage Canada has increased its direct control over the funding of historical research directly out of the minister’s office through new program-specific funding opportunities, including the War of 1812 Commemoration Fund and the Diamond Jubilee Community Celebration fund.

“So you think this government is interested in Canadian History?” asks Professor Eric Sager from the University of Victoria in a recent Times-Colonist op-ed, “Think again.” These policy changes affirm the recent argument of Jeffrey Simpson in his Globe and Mail column in which he alleged that “[t]he Conservatives display two-facedness in the telling of history, systematically reducing the role of the informed and the neutral in explaining the country to Canadians, while enhancing the capacity of the government to cherry-pick what it chooses to highlight.” The role of the informed will be crippled through budget cuts like the ones to Library and Archives Canada. According to the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), these cuts “will have devastating effects on our nation’s ability to acquire and preserve its history.”

At first glace this statement may seem like an exaggeration, but the proposed cuts cited by CAUT suggest otherwise:
• the elimination of 21 of the 61 archivists and archival assistants that deal with non-governmental records
• the reduction of digitization and circulation staff by 50%
• a significant reduction in the number of staff that deal with preservation and conservation of documents
• the closure of the interlibrary loans unit

These so-called “austerity” policies have also led to the scheduled closures of several government libraries and archives. And Parks Canada, one the main branches of the federal government that conducts direct historical research, has recently suffered a massive round of job losses.
In short, within the wider Conservative Party of Canada’s ideological agenda to reduce the role of government in the lives of Canadians lies a contradictory policy initiative for direct cabinet control over the financing, research, and production of knowledge about Canadian history. If left unchallenged, this anti-intellectual politicization of history, as Simpson suggests, will result in “a deformed version of the past.”

Sean Kheraj is an assistant professor of Canadian and environmental history at York University. He blogs at

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3 thoughts on “Seizing Canada’s Past: Politics and the Reinvention of Canadian History

  1. Sean Kheraj

    Today’s news about Minister Moore’s inappropriate reaction to the “Sex: A Tell-all Exhibition” at the Canada Science and Technology Museum only underlines the point that the cabinet is attempting to exert direct control over independent research and communication of research findings:

    This government cannot seem to accept publicly funded arms-length and independent institutions for knowledge production and communication. Just ask the folks over at the CBC.

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