Canada’s history ‘warts and all’
Mark O’Neill can’t put a precise date on it, but at some point in recent decades Canadians discovered they have a history. And they care a great deal about it, much more than they did in the past.
O’Neill is chairman and CEO of the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, just across the border from Ottawa.
The national institution had operated as the Museum of Civilization, but in 2012 it was repurposed as the country’s foremost history museum. It still tells international stories, but the overwhelming focus will be on Canada’s story, or stories, when the renovations are complete in 2017.
The museum engaged more than 20,000 Canadians in various ways on the stories that should be told and how to tell them. In the process, it discovered Canadians were passionate about their country and history mattered because it related directly to issues of identity and moral values, O’Neill said.
He said he believes the war in Afghanistan may have sparked more interest in Canada’s history and the country’s role in the world.
The war dragged on for more than 10 years, the longest military conflict in Canada’s history – twice as long as Canada’s involvement in the Second World War. But even though casualties were far fewer than in the world wars or the Korean conflict, the war seemed to affect every Canadian in some way. People made comparisons with past conflicts and started new discussions on the meaning of Canada.
The various anniversaries of the two world wars have also contributed to a sense of looking back with pride, while generating new research on their roles in the building of a Canadian identity.
The familiar trope of identifying Canadians as nonAmericans seems to have vanished long before Afghanistan, replaced with a more robust idea of a people with a distinct identity.
American identity is based on liberty, while Canadians see themselves as a tolerant, multicultural, pluralistic society where social harmony is more important than frontier-style individualism. At least those are the myths. In its quest to tell Canada’s history, “warts and all,” O’Neill rightly says the museum wants to emphasize the legacy and meaning of controversial events and individuals, as well as the lives of ordinary Canadians.
The history of aboriginal peoples will also get renewed emphasis. The former Museum of Civilization began Canada’s story in the 11th century with the arrival of the Vikings, but the history museum will start the story some 13,000 years ago and carry the story of indigenous peoples to the present.
O’Neill said visitors to history museums want to see and touch real artifacts from the past, what he calls our “material culture.”
Critics have said the history museum’s new mandate is just another Tory plot to remake Canada in its own image, but that’s hogwash.
Canada deserves a vibrant history museum that reflects our growing self-awareness as a people who carved a nation out of half a continent.