Canadians and their Pasts on the Road to Confederation

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By Thomas Peace

cdns and pasts

2014 has begun and it looks like another banner year for historical commemoration. The government of Canada has been clear: we’re now on the road to commemorating Confederation. But as the new year begins, the metaphorical road we’re headed down better resembles the roads at the time of Confederation than anything we’re familiar with today (Montreal and Saskatoon excluded). There’s a rocky ride ahead! The past and its uses remain contested ground as Canada’s history and heritage landscape continues to undergo significant, and potentially lasting, change. However, rather than more of the same, the publication of the large-scale survey Canadians and Their Pasts and Canadian Heritage’s recently launched ‘Have your Say’ questionnaire promise that in 2014 the debates of the past few years may take on new dynamics.

For those of us with an interest in the past, 2014 came in like a lion. In the three short weeks that have passed, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has set out across the country alongside a handful of cabinet colleagues to consult Canadians about Confederation’s upcoming sesquicentennial. At the same time, news reached the public that the expected purge of government libraries has begun in earnest (see herehere, and today’s alarming news about the main library at Health Canada). TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paiken probed the question of “Does History Matter?” And Historica launched a new set of Heritage Minutes related to Confederation (see Christopher Moore’s blog for some reflection). These events, of course, follow upon a year of similarly high profile events related to Canadians’ understanding of the past. December 2013 alone saw the Canadian Museum of Civilization transformed into the Canadian Museum of History, and the announcement that changes at Canadian Heritage will end funding to the influential Historical Thinking Project.

Generally, debate over these events has enriched our understanding of Canada’s past and how it is constructed (or, perhaps better put, deconstructed). Time and time again, though, I am struck by how rarely interventions to these subjects engage research about the role of the past in our everyday lives. Usually, reference is made to how well Canadians have responded to Historica’s polling as a proxy for engagement with the past and historical literacy (Canadians stink, it seems, at remembering names, dates and places). These types of quizzes, though provocative and useful, are problematic not only because they reflect a bias towards certain types of remembering and performance, but also because they assume there is a single meaningful narrative of Canadian history and that it should be readily accessible to Canadians at all times.

Thankfully, we now have a much more contextual dataset with which we can assess how Canadians interact with the past. Late last year, the results of the Canadians and their Pasts project were finally published in book form, giving us – for the first time – a deep image of historical consciousness in Canada. The conclusions from this study help us to understand the current debate over public commemoration, access to information and the broader politicization of the past.

Canadians and Their Pasts is an ambitious project conducted by seven prominent Canadian historians (Margaret Conrad, Kadriye Ercikan, Gerald Friesen, Jocelyn Létourneau, Delphin Muise, David Northrup and Peter Seixas). Building on similar studies in Europe, the United States, and Australia, the authors surveyed 3,419 Canadians about their interest in the past, activities they engaged in related to the past, their understanding of the past, and how they determine the authority of sources that inform their understanding of the past. With such a broad array of questions, their data and conclusions are important for how we frame current debates around history, heritage and commemoration.

One of their most important conclusions is that the past continues to matter for most Canadians.  Picking up on the problems with surveys that emphasize names, dates and places, the study’s authors write: “While much-publicized surveys have reported that more than half [of the country’s population] cannot name Canada’s first Prime Minister or the date when women became eligible to vote in federal elections, they fail to capture the nature of citizen interest in and engagement with the past” (4-5). In fact, if we move beyond the more trivial right/wrong approach to historical knowledge and focus more on how Canadians approach the past, the numbers about broader historical engagement are much more encouraging. Generalizing from their data, the authors suggest:

more than fifteen million adult Canadians are keeping something special to pass on to others, more than ten million are working on collections related to the past, and a like number had visited places from a family past in the previous year. Even more surprising, perhaps, is that nearly half of those who responded to the survey reported that they had recently visited a museum or historic site. (8)

For those of us working in universities, colleges and museums Canadians and Their Pasts also reports positive news. The authors demonstrate that nearly half their respondents took a history course after high school and over 4/5ths engaged with some form of public history in the last year. Although the study points to important differences between Canadians based on education, mobility, region and identity (the findings that Quebecers are generally less interested in the past is particularly surprising), these numbers suggest that, for many Canadians, the past matters.

This begs the questions: If the past matters for so many Canadians, why is the public’s historical literacy a subject of such scrutiny in the media and among politicians? Why can’t Canadians identify Sir John A. Macdonald as the country’s first Prime Minister?

The answer, based on these results, I think, is that national history isn’t as important for Canadians as other aspects of the past. To be clear, I am not saying that Canada’s past isn’t important (Canadians and Their Pasts suggests it is), but rather much like earlier studies conducted in Europe, the United States, and Australia, the history of the family and local community seems to be much more important to the average Canadian than the overarching national historical narrative.

This conclusion helps explain why the Conservative government’s push to commemorate the War of 1812 more-or-less flopped in engaging Canadians with this chapter in Canada’s history and why without a little pick-me-up Sir John A Day (whose popular support rests at about 23%) will likely fail too.

Put simply, these types of commemoration don’t resonate with the public’s sense of the present or the public’s sense of the past. In his analysis Nik Nanos, who conducted the polling upon which these conclusions are drawn, told the CBC that “What’s interesting is that things that affect the day-to-day lives of Canadians, such as the Charter, such as women getting the vote, are actually more likely to have a higher intensity of support.” Nanos’s conclusions about the present are echoed by the authors of Canadians and Their Pasts.

What’s more, the various targets of heavy Conservative cutbacks like Library and Archives Canada, Parks Canada and the CBC seem to be the very places where surveyed Canadians might want to see more engagement with the past. The Canadians and Their Pasts survey demonstrates that looking at old photographs (albeit often family photos, rather than archival photos) and watching history-based television and film programming are two key ways in which Canadians engage with the past. If the government were really concerned about how Canadians engage with national history, it seems that developing history-related programming at these institutions might be a place to start. The restoration of the hastily cut National Archival Development Program, which supported local museums and archives is a good start.

Having written all of this, the culture of commemoration may be changing. Although we remain three years away from celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary, the government has recently launched a ‘Have your Say’ questionnaire in order to hear what Canadians are interested in celebrating, implying that they are open to suggestions about how to celebrate in 2017. This type of civic engagement promises that we might see commemorative events that better reflect the interests of the country and perhaps respond more closely to what we now know about how Canadians engage with the past.

A lot will have to change, though, to demonstrate that the government is genuine in its attempts to listen to the public. CBC’s Kady O’Malley observed that in previous feedback sessions regarding the 150th logo, citizen-based focus groups pointed the government towards themes of “celebration, pride, party, multiculturalism and immigration, diversity, history, youth and unity.” Despite receiving this feedback, the Canada 150 website, operated by Canadian Heritage, continues to claim that the upcoming celebration will be a time to “celebrate and reflect on Canadian patriotism, sacrifice and commitment to service, the value of personal responsibility, hard work and family, national stability, the rights and duties of citizenship, and fairness and inclusiveness.” The government seems to be moving one way by emphasizing values traditionally associated with the Conservative party despite being advised by the public to continue promoting values with which Canadians have been associated for at least 40 years.

Perhaps more telling, though, about the Conservatives’ unwillingness to learn from criticism and public consultation is the continued absence of the repatriation of the Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms from their list of “milestones” on the road to Confederation. Despite being cited as the historical event about which the pubic is most interested in commemorating, the Charter (whose 30th and 35th anniversary bookends the Conservatives’ planned commemorations) remains conspicuously absent from the upcoming celebrations. In this case, public interest seems no match against a partisan commemoration of Canada’s past that seeks to downplay Liberal-party contributions to the country in favour of more Conservative-party driven influences and values. Although these tactics may share similarities with those of previous Liberal governments, the current government’s willingness to ignore popular perspectives on the past is unique.

Despite all of this, with the publication of Canadians and Their Pasts, historians, policy makers and producers in the media are now better equipped to explore the relatively hot topic of Canadian history and public engagement. The timing couldn’t be better.  As Canada and Canadians begin working our way to the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation, we have a more robust tool box with which to understand how Canadians interact with this country’s past. Knowing what Canadians see as important and how they interact with primary and secondary sources is useful in both creating forums where we can learn from local experts and also teach some of the broader themes in Canada’s past. The study presents an opportunity for professionals working in history-related fields to create environments that encourage thinking historically about Canada’s past.

The ‘Have your Say’ questionnaire is a good place to start and the Conservative government should be commended for beginning this program. Although its open-ended nature and the fact that Canadians can make multiple submissions may reduce its statistical value, the data that it generates (both in responses and metadata) will be useful in helping us understand the moments in Canada’s past that are most significant for Canadians. The questionnaire promises to be a useful legacy of the 2017 commemorations. Historians should push to ensure that the results and metadata from this project are made easily accessible to the public as soon as the questionnaire is complete.

When the work of Canadians and Their Pasts and surveys like ‘Have your Say’ are brought alongside each other, Canadians and historians will be equipped with more data with which to discuss and evaluate how Canadians engage with history and the past. 2014 promises to be an exciting year for those of us interested in public engagement with Canada’s past.

Thomas Peace is a Harrison McCain Visiting Professor in the Department of History and Classics at Acadia University and co-editor of

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