Canada’s history ‘warts and all’

Cape Breton Post - - EDITORIAL -

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.

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