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Opinion Why Harper’s meddling with Canadian history might not be all bad

News that a parliamentary committee led by Conservative MPs will investigate how Canadian history is taught in schools landed with an ignominious thud last week.

A big part of the controversy is that, in its typical bull-headed fashion, the federal government risks the appearance of playing symbolic politics with a matter that falls squarely within provincial jurisdiction: school curriculum.

But a principal reason for criticism is that the opposition – and others critical of this government – have long despised the way the Harper government has reframed issues surrounding Canadian culture and history. From its emphasis on the place of the Crown in Canada to its fervent campaign around (okay, borderline obsession with) the War of 1812, this government has played down the usual emblems of Canadian history in favour of a monarchist, pro-military depiction that leaves some people uncomfortable.

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Yet it is not clear the Conservatives are entirely wrong on the broader issue here. While the federal government has no business investigating school curriculum, there is little reason to take it as an article of faith that the version of history to which Canadians are usually exposed – with prominent weight attached to peacekeeping over military conflict or the Charter of Rights over other elements of the constitution – is the "correct" one.

A debate about Canadian history is well worth having. First, it helps to contextualize and air for public discussion the Conservative government's approach, which includes other decisions, such as renaming the Museum of Civilization to focus it more directly on history (the objections to which I do not really understand).

Second, a national debate may be useful to underscore the extent to which depictions of history – what events, institutions and individuals we collectively place emphasis on – are inherently subjective and political. It is for this reason that criticisms that the Harper government is "politicizing" history may be accurate but are also meaningless. By emphasizing the Charter of Rights and peacekeeping, associated with former prime ministers Pierre Trudeau and Lester B. Pearson respectively, previous Liberal governments did precisely the same thing.

At its core, this pattern comes down to honestly held beliefs about what values ought to be represented through our national institutions, symbols and understandings of what Canada represents. At its most crass, these choices are a product of partisan legacy building. Rather than settle for partisan bickering, why not have a more robust debate about what histories matter most?

Finally, and most importantly, a debate about Canadian history is probably the best way to improve knowledge of it. And there's evidence that, even among the political class, understanding of civics and history in Canada is tenuous at best.

We have witnessed the sad spectacle of Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party and a sitting member of parliament, write to the Queen asking her to intervene following the robocalls scandal. This betrayed a phenomenally misguided assessment of the proper role of the Crown. Hopefully the Queen's response – an emphatic "buzz off" (in diplomatic royal language, of course) – made that clear. Further, the government's own confusion about the Crown, which it has been so enthusiastic to promote, was on display in the debate over the rules of royal succession, where it suggested that the Crown was not a distinct Canadian institution. This was a puzzling interpretation of our constitutional history.

A debate that compels the government to justify why the Crown, for example, is worthy of a spotlight in the national conversation could do much more for improving understanding of Canadian history than bringing back the name "Royal Canadian Navy," as the government did two years ago. Similarly, critics might have to articulate reasons why this is a travesty beyond complaining about the "foreign" royal family (which, it is worth noting, does not sum up the meaning of the Crown in Canada).

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None of this is to suggest that the Conservatives' view of history is necessarily right and their opponents are wrong. And a committee investigation into curriculum seems like a profoundly ham-fisted adventure for the federal government, especially since it has never been particularly forthright about, or interested in, articulating a cogent defense of its choices. Further, the government's purported interest in Canadian history is belied by the way it has slashed funding to Library and Archives Canada.

But the government has made a series of symbolic choices to highlight certain elements of Canada's past that are entirely legitimate. I do not know that I favor spending $30-million to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, or virtually ignoring the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Rights. Nor do I know if either of those things are worthy of the outrage we saw from the Liberals and NDP.

What I do know is that a debate about Canadian history could be well worth having.

Emmett Macfarlane is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Waterloo. His new book, Governing from the Bench: The Supreme Court of Canada and the Judicial Role, is available from UBC Press.

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