In keeping with their wish to refashion the national consciousness, our arch-conservatives have an eye on museums.
As reported in this newspaper, changes will see the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the largest museum in the land, become a history museum with an emphasis on showcasing our great deeds.
Other museums, according to the report, will be asked to do more to reflect past glories. It’s expected there will be an emphasis on the military and conflicts, such as the War of 1812. In keeping with this, the government has announced it is renaming buildings in Ottawa in honour of 1812 veterans. The monarchy will be given a greater place in museums, as will our sporting heritage, particularly hockey. At hockey games, we’re now expected to stand and cheer thunderously when military personnel are introduced, as though it’s the 1940s.
The retooling of museums – the Museum of Civilization, anthropologically dreary, does need a facelift – may well be a commendable exercise. There’s nothing wrong with making our past as storied as possible, especially given the historical vacuum in which large segments of the population reside.
But given the Conservatives’ proclivities, as reflected in their confrontational foreign policy and their affinity for old wars, there’s concern that they won’t get it right, that a lot of our history will go missing.
As fine an idea as it is to celebrate our armed forces and wartime contributions, what about our opposite inclinations? Our postwar history, before the arrival of the Harper government, is predominantly a story about Canada as peacemaker, bridger of differences, conciliator. We were never a bellicose, aggressor nation, not before this period either, and we should never be portrayed as one.
In Ottawa, we already have a big spanking new war museum. To go along with it, far be it from anyone to suggest we have something like a museum of peace. But if we did, we could fill it with some praiseworthy stuff.
For the half-century in question, we could start with the exemplary work of Lester Pearson, who, having urged restraint in Korea, was the key player in bringing about a close to the perilous Suez crisis. We could showcase his government’s opposition to the Vietnam War, particularly the Temple University speech calling on Lyndon Johnson to halt the bombing.
It’s curious that the Tories are naming an icebreaker after John Diefenbaker. Far from being a militarist, Mr. Diefenbaker, who had a peacenik foreign minister in Howard Green, went about opposing (though in a foolhardy manner) the stationing of nuclear warheads on Canadian soil and challenging John Kennedy’s adventurism at every turn.
Then came Pierre Trudeau. He pushed to slow the arms race, made an opening to China, got far too cozy with Fidel Castro and staged a world peace mission in the early 1980s. His efforts to get the superpowers to the bargaining table were ridiculed by some. But Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev eventually got around to the kind of consultation and co-operation Mr. Trudeau had advocated.
Under Brian Mulroney and his effective foreign minister, Joe Clark, came a strong stand against apartheid and American intervention in Nicaragua. Through these decades, Ottawa pressed for multilateralism and disarmament, the prominent role played by the Chrétien government in the international treaty banning land mines being just one example.
Our current Prime Minister, given his initial enthusiasm for a coalition of the willing, won’t wish to see much museum space devoted to Jean Chrétien’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq. But we were on the right side of history there, as was the case with Vietnam.
We did fight in some conflicts, and admirably. Not all our efforts at peace-brokering can be said to have been well-advised. But there’s a lot of proud history in that half-century of restraint. Our museums and other accountings of the Canadian record should reflect it.