The History Wars in Canada

Jack Granatstein’s 1998 jeremiad Who Killed Canadian History? was the opening shot of the History Wars, a fierce conflict about the meaning and purpose of our nation’s past. Academic historians, he satirically concluded, had abandoned traditional military and political history in order to specialize in topics like “the history of housemaid’s knee in Belleville in the 1890s.” The general public, taking little interest in such minutiae, became disillusioned with learning about history. Granatstein, then a professor at York, took issue with the rising dominance of social history in history departments, especially the state of historical instruction in schools and universities, and what he perceived to be a general decline of historical consciousness across the country.

Fifteen years later, according to historian Tom Peace, “the so-called ‘History Wars’ are still alive and well in the Canadian public sphere.” Since gaining a majority in the 2011 election, the Conservative government under Stephen Harper has made the History Wars a tangible reality through a number of decisions that take federal historical policy in a right-wing direction, while left-wing nationalists in Quebec are campaigning to shift the province’s historical educational policy towards a distinctively indé pendentiste position. In each case, historical interpretation becomes influenced by current ideological battles, in ways which are rarely noticed by the average Canadian or Quebecer.

The federal government’s exact motives in this historical policy revolution are difficult to pinpoint, but it seems clear that the Harper Tories are trying to imprint their ideological stamp on Canadian culture. Jeffrey Simpson of The Globe and Mail writes of an overall trend in government policy:

“For the Harper Conservatives, there’s no sense of contributing to a new or evolved sense of Canadian identity, but rather a reaching back and dusting off of fragments of the past that suit their politics—which is why the military and the monarchy are their favoured subjects for historical attention.”

While the government has spent lavishly on certain historical initiatives, like the commemoration of the War of 1812, other key funding has been sharply reduced or eliminated. Deep cuts were made at Library and Archives Canada (LAC), forcing it to lay off a large number of staff members and reduce services under the guise of digitization and modernization. Scott Staring remarks that the Conservative intervention in the History Wars is not really conservative at all; it is a radical attempt to project current concerns into the past:

“The aim of the Harper government is not so much to conserve Canada’s existing traditions, but to leapfrog backwards in time in hope of resurrecting long-vanished ones. From a genuinely conservative perspective there is always something dangerous about the desire to return to the past in this way. Such ventures are usually inspired by romantic ideals that are at best inchoate, and at worst tip over into a confused and destructive opposition to what exists.”

Thus what we are seeing is not so much the resurrection of past events and ideals, but the use of history to intervene in present-day ideological debates.


This historical revolution is being undertaken by a small group of right-wing activists and scholars, such as C.P. Champion, who is probably the most important Conservative historian in Canada today.1 His 2010 book, The Strange Demise of British Canada: The Liberals and Canadian Nationalism, 1964-1968, shows how the Harper government views the History Wars. According to Champion, the effort in the 1960s to produce a new complex of Canadian symbols (like the maple leaf flag) was not the outcome of a broad-based consensus, but rather “a bloodless coup d’état by neo-nationalists, overthrowing a symbolic order grounded in centuries of history.” Here we can see that the Conservatives have a well-developed notion of cultural hegemony, which allows an elite few to plan nationwide cultural change, foreshadowing future government initiatives.

The appointment last April of historians Michael Bliss and Christopher McCreery2 to the board of trustees that oversees the Canadian Museum of Civilization and War Museum marked the opening of another front in the History Wars. Heritage Minister James Moore announced in October that the Museum of Civilization would be renamed the “Canadian Museum of History,” given $25 million in new funding, and would focus on Canada’s political and social history rather than international civilizations. Critics have labeled this an attempt to promote right-wing nationalism via a major cultural institution. Amanda Watson, a PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Women’s Studies, attacks this effort, particularly the new focus on military history, saying: “It is a reorientation to Canadian history, one that promotes a master narrative in the hopes of recasting a unified Canadian citizen.”

Whether the Tories are successful in such a reorientation is of course an open question. But it seems that after a long period of complacency, centrist and centre-left historians have realized that their positions are under threat. Yet this sort of ideological warfare is also possible in the other direction, as the case of historical education in Quebec shows.

Soon after his announcement of the Museum of Civilization’s restructuring, Moore publically called for Canadian history to be made mandatory in schools across the country. But as primary and secondary education is a provincial responsibility, few took Moore’s proclamation seriously. In Quebec, history education has become a centre for cultural conflict, and the left has taken the initiative in the History Wars. In 2009, academic Robert Comeau3 co-founded la Coalition pour l’histoire to lead a campaign for more Quebec history instruction in the province’s schools and universities. The initiative gives a distinctive nationalist edge to historical education in Quebec, subsuming the History Wars in the larger debate over provincial sovereignty and separation.

Much like the Historica-Dominion Institute in Anglophone Canada, the Coalition regularly produces surveys deploring the unsatisfactory state of historical knowledge among students and the general population. For instance, the Coalition’s report from last March, “A Bleached History to Serve the Present,” (based on a survey of history instructors in Quebec’s secondary schools) concluded that the teaching of the province’s past “was prone to exaggerate the cultural pluralism of Quebec society.” Historians Christian Laville and Michèle Dagenais criticize the Coalition’s emphasis on politics over newer developments in areas such as social history. They say that this older political history has traditionally been used to give legitimacy to la question nationale, which some think is “essential for fanning the flames of nationalism.”

After coming to office in the provincial election last September, Marie Malavoy, the new Parti Québécois government’s Minister of Education, publically mused about making changes to history instruction, especially to allow the national question to be mentioned in secondary school instruction. This proposal drew outraged protests from the Coalition Avenir Québec and Liberal parties, who called it an attempt to politicize the province’s education system. Micheline Lachance characterizes this opposition as an attempt to keep young Quebecers in their “federalist lobster trap.” On the other hand, Jocelyn Létourneau, the Canadian Research Chair in modern Quebec history at Laval,says the national question should not be “the sun around which all the planets of the Quebec past must orbit.”

Historical education will remain a centre for debate as long as independence remains an open question in Quebec’s political culture. The parallels between la Coalition pour l’histoire and the Conservatives’ federal historical revolution are fascinating: in each case, political activists at either end of the ideological spectrum try to use historical policies to carry on their contemporary political struggles and attempt to overturn academic consensus in the process.

From recent developments in cultural and educational policies by the federal and Quebec governments, it is evident that the historical guidelines of the liberal-social democratic era are under attack. Conservatives seek to promote a right-wing narrative based on military and political history, while indépendistes want to use Quebec’s history education policy to advocate nationalist ends. If the centre and centre-left in Canada are to reclaim the initiative in the History Wars, there must be greater consciousness of the political roots of historical scholarship and more honesty about motives.  The struggle for cultural hegemony by activists on the left and right will continue for the foreseeable future, but the results of such combat are ambiguous. The History Wars are really not about history, but rather politics.






1 After writing for several years for the conservative magazine Alberta Report, Champion worked on Parliament Hill for the Reform Party, Canadian Alliance, and Conservative Party. He was one of three social conservatives purged by Harper from the Office of the Leader of the Opposition in 2002, as they were seen to be too close to the outgoing Stockwell Day. Since earning a PhD in history at McGill University, Champion has served as Director of Citizenship Policy in the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration, headed by Jason Kenney. He is also a contributing editor to The Dorchester Review, a highbrow journal associated with such conservative intellectuals as Rudyard Griffiths, the founder of the Dominion Institute (a forerunner of the Historica-Dominion Institute), and Xavier Gélinas, the new curator for Canadian political history at the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

2 McCreery is another key figure in the Harper government’s historical policy revolution. An expert on the Canadian honours system, McCreery spent several years working for various senators, mostly Tories, after receiving a PhD in history from Queen’s in 2003. In 2010, Harper appointed McCreery to the Governor General Consultation Committee, along with a few protocol experts and conservative academics like Rainer Knopff, Christopher Manfredi, and Jacques Monet. (This committee appointed the relatively conservative David Johnston to be the successor to Michaëlle Jean.) McCreery also provided advice to the Senate defence committee, leading to the government’s decision in 2011 to rename the Maritime Command “the Royal Canadian Navy” (along with the new “Royal Canadian Air Force” and “Canadian Army”). (Notably, Granatstein also attacked the “Royal” re-designations, saying: “The idea of rolling back the national symbols to make them more British is just loony.”)

3 Comeau is a history professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal, former member of the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), and vice-president of La Fondation Lionel-Groulx, a nationalist historical institute.


One response to “The History Wars in Canada”

  1. It’s interesting that both the federal Conservatives and provincial PQ are trying to shift history in the *same* way – away from a modern awareness of diversity and social history and back to a focus on political and nationalist history. They have a lot more in common than they would like to think.