Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Big Idea of 2013

Dec 17, 2013


The Big Idea in Canadian history circles in 2013 was probably the Warrior Nation.

It popped up most provocatively in the 2012 book by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift, Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety, but it also figures in the complaints about the federal government's War of 1812 commemorations and the reconceptualizing of the Canadian Museum of Civilization as the new Canadian Museum of History.

I wrote about this issue in a column about the McKay/Swift book for Geist magazine. Basically the argument goes that the Harper government is distorting Canadian history by over-emphasizing our military and monarchical heritage, thus rebranding the country as a "Warrior Nation." This is done in various ways, some subtle some not so subtle. So that, for instance, we see members of the military appearing at many public ceremonies, roadways being renamed "Highways of Heroes" and millions of dollars being spent on war commemorations.

While it seems indisputable that the Harperites are doing this, I suppose the larger question is whether it is in the DNA of every government to distort history for partisan purposes. The past always has a politics. Mythifying history is a powerful way to legitimize present policy. All governments, Conservative and Liberal alike, reshape the narrative to promote their own agenda and it is one of the jobs of the historian to call them on it. Which McKay and Swift have done.

More recently Peter Seixas has raised another red flag about government meddling in history education. Seixas is a professor of education at UBC and an expert in the study of history education. In a post at Active History he reveals that his admirable Historical Thinking Project has lost its federal funding, apparently because it promotes a critical approach to the past which is not in keeping with the government's more triumphalist views of how history should be taught in schools.

As Seixas suggests, it is not the job of history education to "celebrate" Canada's past or to promote a "Great Person" approach to historical study and it is discouraging that the bureaucracy, with direction from its political masters, is taking this tack.

I recall the phrase used by the British historian Richard Evans, writing in The Guardian newspaper earlier this year. "History is not a myth making discipline, it is a myth busting discipline." It is not the job of history "to impart a patriotic sense of national identity," wrote Evans, but rather to get people thinking critically about the past.

The government, and ourselves, need to be constantly reminded that this is so.