The air was unusually heavy with history this Dominion Day — oh all right, Canada Day — in this year of national anniversaries: the 150th anniversary of the Charlottetown and Quebec conferences, the 100th anniversary of the First World War, the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
Speaking at the annual celebration on Parliament Hill, Prime Minister Stephen Harper tried to connect the dots. “In 1864, meeting in Charlottetown and in Quebec, our fathers of Confederation dreamed a magnificent dream, a dream of a united Canada that would take its place among the countries of the world, prosperous, strong and free.” Today, he went on “this is their dream: Canada, a confident partner, a courageous warrior, a compassionate neighbour. Canada, the best country in —”
Whoa, whoa, whoa: what did he say? No, not the “best country” bit. The part before it. A courageous warrior? Across the country, a thousand knees jerk in unison. A bit … militaristic, isn’t it? To talk of such unpleasantness at a time like this? Poor taste, at the least. Would any previous prime minister in our lifetime have referred to Canada’s “warrior” heritage, outside of Remembrance Day? Talk about peacekeeping, or Pearson, but for God’s sake don’t mention the war.
Still, it can hardly have surprised anyone. It’s a standard line in Harper speeches, part of a determined effort to refashion Canada’s self-image — some would say rewrite its history — using the Conservatives’ preferred iconography. By now, the Harper government’s relentless invocation of Canada’s military past has become as much a scandal in certain quarters as its obstinate advocacy of the monarchy, its fascination with the North, its seeming belief that Canada’s history begins before 1968.
Such is the state of the history wars that even so innocuous a step as changing the name of the Canadian Museum of Civilization to the Canadian Museum of History, with a mandate, as a spokesman for the Heritage Minister explained this week, to “highlight the national achievements and accomplishments that have shaped our country,” has aroused suspicions. Surely it must be some devious Tory propaganda exercise, the critics sniff, an attempt to whitewash the country’s past, or worse, harness it to conservative ideology.
Because heaven knows, that’s never been tried before. For most of the past 60 or 70 years, Liberal nationalists (often taking their cue from New Democrats) have peddled their own national mythology: of the country as, quite literally, the creature of the state, of its supposed “public enterprise culture,” of an almost genetic Canadian preference for collectivism, as distinct from those rabid individualists to the south.
For such differences, to nationalists of this school, were everything: robust enough in themselves to justify our nationhood and yet fragile enough to require the most heroic efforts of preservation. To the extent the country was defined by anything but what it was not, it was the flag and the Charter of Rights, medicare and multiculturalism: Liberal policies all. L’état, c’était eux.
So it was not entirely unexpected that the Conservatives, rather than leave the country’s self-definition to the Liberals, such that every policy debate could be framed as pro-Canada or anti-Canada — as every debate had been the last time they were in power — would have sought instead to emphasize their own icons and ideals, their own national mythology.
Up to a point, this was not only to be expected, but desired. To understand this country’s history without reference to its military past is not to understand it at all. War not only played a decisive part in our colonial origins, but has tested our resources and shaped our politics ever since, notably through the two World Wars. Indeed, but for the War of 1812, we might not exist.
The Crown, likewise, is not some useless foreign ornament, as successive Liberal governments often seemed to imply: It is the very foundation of our constitutional order, as essential to our way of life as Parliament, the common law, and the rest of the British inheritance, and as quintessentially Canadian. To remain attached to these institutional underpinnings, to remind ourselves of their advantages, is not to retreat into the past. It is merely to decline to be cut off from it.
So, fine: thus far, the Tories could be said to be righting the balance. But true to the chips on their shoulders, they could not leave it at that. It was not enough to celebrate and affirm Conservative national icons: It was necessary to diminish and downplay Liberal ones. The 30th anniversary of patriation and the Charter of Rights, for example, came and went without any official celebration or even acknowledgment.
And so the history wars continue, pointlessly. Surely it is possible to honour both versions of our past, both sides of our selves, in a country so accustomed to duality — aboriginal and European, French and English, immigrant and native-born — in other respects. Surely we are both a constitutional monarchy and a rights-bearing democracy. Surely our history is distinguished both by war-making and by peacekeeping. Surely our national character is a result both of individual and collective enterprise.
On the other hand, it really should be Dominion Day.
Andrew Coyne: Stephen Harper’s Canada Day speech the latest volley in pointless history wars