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When history means managing the message

John Bell

December 31, 2012

As I write Stephen Harper continues to ignore the hunger strike of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence. In this context it is worth recalling a speech he made to the 2009 G8 meeting in Pittsburgh, extolling the virtues of Tory-ruled Canada. Among other things he made this rather astounding statement: “We also have no history of colonialism. So we have all of the things that many people admire about the great powers but none of the things that threaten or bother them.”
Canada is a creation of imperialism and violence. The conquest of indigenous First Nations was a holocaust, from the extinction of the Beothuk people on the Atlantic coast to the use of British gun boats to destroy the communities and cultures of the Pacific Northwest. That holocaust took different forms as French colony was conquered by British Empire, and colonial status was succeeded by nationhood. But a domestic genocide it remains.
Whatever else he is, Stephen Harper is neither stupid nor uneducated. Less than a year earlier he had publicly apologized to the survivors of Canada’s horrific Residential School system, guilty of an official policy of “aggressive assimilation”—cultural genocide is the term preferred by most First Nations people. The explicit mission of the Residential Schools was to “kill the Indian and save the man.” So what can we make of Harper’s ridiculous pronouncement to the G8?
It only begins to make sense when seen as part of a bigger project to rewrite history, to sanitize the violence of imperial conquest, to justify the plunder of natural resources found on or under land belonging to First Nations, and to promote future military adventure at home and abroad by glorifying a mythical military past.
I’ve written in previous issues about how the phony “celebration” of the War of 1812 fits into this project. Harper’s Tories are throwing millions of dollars away to celebrate a “victory” that is historically dubious, ignoring the real story of pacifism, draft-dodging and desertion that characterized the colonial population in 1812.
But the grand project of Tory historical revisionism goes much deeper. It involves cutting funding and access to libraries and archives, where the raw data of our real past stories reside. It involves huge cuts to Statistics Canada, and privatizing the task of gathering data to military mega-corporation Lockheed-Martin. It involves muzzling scientists and cutting environmental protections.
So it is not surprising that the Tories are changing the name and mandate of the celebrated Museum of Civilization to the Museum of Canadian History. As McGill history professor Allan Greer told the Globe and Mail, “There is a kind of a narrowing of a sense of the Canadian past with this emphasis on the military and on deeds of State. The War of 1812 matters, Confederation matters, but the discomfort comes from the sense that so much else is being erased and getting less attention.”
As the mandate changes, expect a loss of curatorial autonomy, and more direct and indirect government interference into what parts of our history are displayed, and how they are portrayed.
Much of the old Museum of Civilization focused on archeology, and celebrated the richness of First Nations cultures. In this way it reinforced the idea that these were not just primitive bands of poorly organized hunters and gatherers, but rich and well-developed societies deserving to be dealt with as sovereign nations. These ideas are meant to be enshrined in the museum building itself, designed by celebrated Metis architect Douglas Cardinal.
This is anathema to the Tories and their plans to gouge as much profit from the land as they can, as quickly as they can. That requires that they sweep aside the First Nations that reside on the land, have never ceded their control of the land, and whose cultures put defence of the environment at the very centre of their world view.
Museum of Civilization workers are privately complaining, but speaking out in public would result in loss of livelihood and being black-listed in their profession. To see what their future will entail, look no further than the new Canadian Museum of Human Rights, slated to open in Winnipeg sometime in 2014.
It was supposed to be open this coming year, but cost overruns and an ongoing crisis of staffing has pushed that back. The pricetag is at $351 million and counting. And already 24 employees have been fired or have quit.
The departing workers have not spoken publicly about problems at the museum – since they are bound by a gag order telling them “not to disparage or make negative comments, publicly or privately, oral or written about the , including employees of the . Any breach of this provision will result in forfeiture of some or all of the settlement proceeds.”
The fact that disgruntled employees of a Museum of Human Rights must sign away their right to free speech is beyond ironic. We’re entering Orwellian territory here.
One person who has not been so gagged is Mary Eberts. She is a law professor and expert in women’s equity issues, and was a member of the museum’s advisory council of human rights experts. On quitting the museum, she openly complained about a culture of political interference, a toxic workplace and poor morale.
With much of the finding coming from private donors, solicited by Tory politicians, would this Museum of Human Rights have the nerve to exhibit the human rights abuses heaped on Canada’s First Nations, past and present? What about the gross rights abuses taking place in Palestine? The exodus of museum workers and human rights experts is answer enough.
Shrugging of the signs of crisis, professional complaints and political interference, Museum CEO Stuart Murray stated: “This is going to be a museum for human rights, not human wrongs.”
Chief Theresa Spence wants to tell the genuine story of her people and their treatment at the hands of successive Canadian governments. Harper wants to silence her and control the message. That, in a nutshell, is what rewriting history is all about.

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