The outrage from the Opposition over a standing committee’s hearings into how Canadians learn about their history is overwrought and somewhat naive. Where critics see a manipulation of our past for political purposes, calmer heads see a legitimate interest in how this country is portrayed to the people who live here, and a concern that Canadians understand the sacrifices made by their ancestors. Furthermore, history is constantly being rewritten, and any public discussion about that is a good thing.
The House of Commons Heritage Committee began hearings on Monday, but only after its Conservative-dominated membership dropped a plan to study how history is taught in schools. This was a sensible decision, as education is a provincial jurisdiction. The committee, however, is proceeding with a review of what it considers to be “significant aspects in Canadian history” and how they are commemorated in federal programs and elsewhere outside of schools. This is a perfectly legitimate undertaking by such a committee.
Critics are using the hearings to contend that an emphasis by the Harper government on Canada’s many military accomplishments, such as the recent celebrations of the War of 1812, are a partisan effort to remake the country in the Conservatives’ image. But that’s an absurd contention. How are any such commemorations a partisan matter? Did liberals not die alongside conservatives in the trenches of the First World War? Many of the young soldiers in any of the wars very likely had no party affiliation.
The first day of hearings included testimony from a man who was concerned that he couldn’t find adequate information about Canadian soldiers’ participation in the Allied landings in Sicily during the Second World War. More than 500 Canadians were killed during the liberation of Sicily, yet the public knows little about this fact. Is it a partisan desire to see such sacrifices properly commemorated?
The Conservatives are not rewriting history; rather, they are interested in making sure Canadians understand that the rights and freedoms we enjoy are a precious inheritance that deserves celebration. If anything, this interest is an act of nation-building that should be embraced.
Writing a nation’s history takes time; the historical significance of the Harper government will not be fully understood or clearly written for a number of decades. But surely, when that does happen, it will not include a condemnation of a standing committee’s desire to discuss the accepted wisdom of the day about Canada’s past, and whether the federal government, within the boundaries of its jurisdictions, might want to highlight overlooked events.