Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Hot History: "Conscripting Canada's Past" now online

The Canadian Journal of History is currently offering online access to "Conscripting Canada's Past," an essay on the Canadian governments's thumb-on-the-scale approach to Canadian history and heritage commemoration, by Yves Frenette of Université de St-Boniface (and chair of the CHA's Advocacy Committee).

Frenette posits that history should stimulate the asking of tough questions, teach openness to others, and highlight complexity, and he argues the Harper government has a "fundamental opposition" to all of these.  He proceeds through an examination of ways the government has been imposing its historical prejudices on historical and cultural institutions.

Having seen friends and colleagues in public-service history intimidated, pressured, defunded, and laid off in recent years, and having recently had a couple of tense negotiations with public and quasi-public agencies about the terms on which I could work with them, I'm alive to many of Frenette's concerns.

And yet.  I'm not convinced that the "transformation of an anthropological museum into a museum of history" -- a centrepiece of Frenette's  essay is his summary of the Canadian Museum of Civilization becoming the Canadian Museum of History -- is a bad thing in itself or even ideologically compromised. It is important that scholars and professionals in institutions like that be able to assert their professional authority, and not have their interpretations second-guessed by flacks in the PMO -- not an imaginary threat these days, by any means! But Frenette's charge that the museum is "destined for failure" because this government doesn't understand the complexity of Canadian history seems, well, premature to me.  And indeed, he admits some evidence contrary to his concerns.  A lousy museum will have to be criticized, an ideological museum condemned -- but just having a history museum should not be suspect in itself.

As to the emphasis of this particular government on militarism, on the monarchy, on anniversaries of wars -- well, I suspect the proper way to change that is to change the government.  Multiculturalism, peace-keeping, social programs -- emphasizing those really was the program of a different government, not a set of sacred texts that cannot be questioned.  Jack Granatstein's got something when he complains that historians seem like we are "all social historians" and intolerant of other approaches to history.

The ideological shibboleths of this gang of politicians is merely an annoyance, and often counterproductive (The government's celebrity-worshipping attitude to the British royal family is surely the best recruiter Canadian republicanism has ever had. Please continue, Minister.)  The corruption of scholarship and interpretation is what's unacceptable, and where criticism is urgently needed.

Read the article.  It's a good example of what Frenette himself calls "histoire √† chaud," hot history, meaning current and engaged.  Gotta like that.

Oh, and the ever more indispensable Active History has just put up an interview with Yves Frenette.

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