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Impact of Harper’s reshaping of Canadian history and identity discussed in micro-lecture session

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Friday, June 7, 2013

Vanessa Hawk

Political scientists and historians alike filled seats and pulled chairs from neighbouring rooms across to see the “History under Harper: Federal identity initiatives in Conservative Canada” panel discussion; such a popular event that not even the early hour could dissuade the audience from spilling into the hallway.

Twelve academics were allotted three minutes each in the micro-lecture session to discuss the how historical initiatives undertaken by the Harper government have and will impact Canadian identity and institutions.

Matt James (UVic) manned the timer during the discussion, which was hosted in partnership by the Canadian Historical Association and the Canadian Political Science Association on Wednesday, June 5.

Panelists highlighted numerous examples of federal initiatives under Harper’s government that have reshaped Canadians’ understanding of our history and therefore our identity. While the consensus seemed to be that Stephen Harper is not the first Prime Minister to do so—Trudeau’s national policies similarly rewrote Canadian identity—there is still concern that Harper is doing so to a more explicit and accelerated extent.

As well, several panelists voiced concern that certain narratives of Canadian history are being emphasized while others are excluded. The Harper government has focused on Canada’s military history, seen in commemorations of Vimy Ridge on the new $20 bill and those for the War of 1812.

“What we can see with the Harper conservatives is a pattern in which military and patriotic history is being valorized over social history and multicultural citizenship,” says Yasmeen Abu-Laban.

Kiera Ladner spoke about how Harper’s recasting of history has denied indigenous sovereignty. She argued that important events like the 1763 Royal Proclamation have been ignored, as has the ongoing colonialism that forgets Canada is a settler society.

One after another, panelists argued that Harper’s “history of nostalgia” (to use Veronica Strong-Boag’s wording) has similarly excluded other groups such as women, ethnic minorities and Quebeckers.

At the same time that the Harper government focuses on a militaristic, British narration of Canadian history, it pushes initiatives that weaken academic and scientific institutions, another central theme throughout the micro-lecture session.

Avigail Eisenberg noted that the alienation of academics also limits the mobilization of civil society, where we expect change to come from in terms of society’s understanding of Canadian history and identity.

Adam Chapnick, along with several other participants, argues that academics are in part to blame. Academics live in an insular world that values research in a peer-reviewed journal more highly than it does a high school textbook or news article. However, the general population’s understanding of Canadian history and all of its nuances would improve if academic incentives and efforts were put towards textbooks and media—outlets that reach a far wider audience.

While academic institutions are weakened and less able to remedy the consequences of Harper’s historical initiatives, Daniel Weinstock reminded the crowd that people do not want their identity to be reshaped, and therefore are resistant to Harper’s efforts. 

The panel agreed that making changes in the culture of academia would help in preserving aspects of Canadian citizenship that are at risk of being lost through recent federal initiatives.

Avigail Eisenberg, too, offers hope that civil society is not constrained by national politics, noting that many of Canada’s best organizations are supported by the international community.

The full list of panel participants is as follows: Yasmeen Abu-Laban, Adam Chapnick, Lyle Dick, Alvin Finkel, Kiera Ladner, Jocelyn Létourneau, Alain Noël, Veronica Strong-Boag, Daniel Weinstock,  Reg Whitaker, Avigail Eisenberg and Brian Palmer.

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Congress of the Humanities and Social SciencesCongress 2013