Brian Lee Crowley

The Hill Times, Vancouver Sun & Calgary Herald: What’s with over-the-top reaction to renaming of Museum of Civilization to the Canadian Museum of History?

For the government to change the museum’s name and provide millions of dollars to assist with the shift to a more history-focused mandate is not undue political interference but an overdue decision to help bind Canadians together more firmly by celebrating rather than ignoring our shared experiences building this admirable society in the cold and sometimes forbidding northern half of the continent. Read my latest column below on the renaming of the Museum of Civilization.

 

What’s with the over-the-top reaction to renaming of Museum of Civilization to the Canadian Museum of History

By Brian Lee Crowley, The Hill Times, October 22, 2012

While a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, to rename a museum is apparently to launch a scurrilous and underhanded attack on its very nature.

That at least is the conclusion one might draw from the over-the-top reaction in some quarters to the renaming of the Museum of Civilization to the Canadian Museum of History. Now there is a national scandal worthy of the name: our largest national museum might now focus more tightly on preserving and celebrating the collective memory of Canadians, while not excluding the history of other parts of the world.

Two criticisms of the re-naming seem to be most in evidence. First is the notion that the politicians will be reaching into the decisions of the museum itself. In fact all the protections that have insulated the museum from political interference remain robustly in place. One is an independent board operating under an act of Parliament that gives them both authority over and accountability for the museum’s operations. Another is a vigilant academic, cultural and historical community, much in evidence and in a celebratory mood at the announcement of the name change. Yet another is the museum’s capable CEO, Mark O’Neill, a dedicated civil servant with high ambitions for an institution he clearly loves.

When Heritage Minister James Moore was asked whether there was some hidden political agenda behind the announcement, he looked around him at the artifacts of Canadian history surrounding him in the museum’s monumental Grand Hall and asked how one could politicize Champlain’s astrolabe, Maurice Richard’s hockey jersey, or Terry Fox’s support van.

For the government to change the museum’s name and provide millions of dollars to assist with the shift to a more history-focused mandate is not undue political interference but an overdue decision to help bind Canadians together more firmly by celebrating rather than ignoring our shared experiences building this admirable society in the cold and sometimes forbidding northern half of the continent.

The other criticism levelled at the government was that the renaming was further evidence of their desire to militarize Canadian history, to promote a distorted vision of Canada as a warrior nation.

These critics were at the wrong museum. They should have been across the river at the Canadian War Museum, moved under the previous government into their magnificent new building in 2005. There you can visit, as over 90,000 Canadians already have, their impressive War of 1812 exhibit.

The government’s decision to put significant resources into celebrating the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 is taken as proof positive by the government’s critics that war is being glorified for crass political purposes.

More likely it is the other way around. After years of soft-pedalling Canada’s distinguished martial past — in part because it inevitably recalls domestic conflicts over conscription — it is being given its due recognition.

Historically we are more warriors than peacekeepers.

Millions of Canadians know this directly. My parents, for instance, had a military wedding while my father served in Korea. My wife’s parents’ military wedding was during the Second World War. All four of our grandfathers served in the Great War. These conflicts involved the mobilization of virtually our entire society in some of the greatest collective endeavours ever undertaken by Canadians.

They touched every family. They are seminal events in the epic story of who we are and for that reason alone deserve pride of place in our story telling.

As for the War of 1812, one of the most moving events I have participated in over the past year was the 200th anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of Queenston Heights on Oct. 13. Over a thousand re-enactors took to the field, representing British, Canadian, aboriginal and American combatants. Fifteen thousand enraptured spectators cheered them on.

Because of the celebrations around the 1812 conflict, I was inspired to read up on its history and discovered a moment when the nascent Canadian self-awareness hung in the balance. Much of Upper Canada was then settled by people who had come from the United States (including the famous Laura Secord). Some came as Loyalists, others as settlers seeking land. It was not obvious that they would take up arms against their erstwhile friends and neighbours in this conflict, nor was it obvious that they would be victorious if they did.

But victory at the Battle of Queenston Heights, early in the conflict, signalled that the British and Canadians could successfully defend this land against a powerful invader.

And the death of General Isaac Brock on the field created a hero and rallying point that inspired the locals.

Whatever the merits of the conflict itself, it became an anvil on which a growing awareness of and pride in a separate northern society in North America was forged. And that is something to celebrate.

Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.

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Brian Lee Crowley