Sep 11th, 2014
Every national TV newscast had it: the Prime Minister boasting about his taxpayer-funded expedition that discovered one of two doomed 1846 Sir John Franklin ships in Arctic waters.
“This is truly a historic moment for Canada,” said Stephen Harper on Tuesday.
“Franklin’s ships are an important part of Canadian history given that his expeditions, which took place nearly 200 years ago, laid the foundations of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.”
The ill-fated Royal British expedition that killed all 128 seamen was an attempt to find the northwest passage and to open the north to resource exploitation.
But a prominent historian says Harper’s hunt for the ships, which began in 2012, was just the tip of the iceberg of a larger Conservative agenda.
“We’re seeing a concerted campaign to change how Canadians think about their history, said Queen’s University history professor Ian McKay on Wednesday.
“To emphasize the British connection, and northern exploration.”
McKay says the ship’s discovery is part of a long list of recent Harper efforts to revitalize royal, military, and colonial conquest history for political gain.
“How Canada has become a ‘warrior nation’ in this kind of symbolic sense – an almost endless emphasis on battles, and heroic deeds of male adventurers.”
“There’s a traditional base in rural English Canada and in certain areas of the west… who still have a reverence for the British connection,” said McKay.
“[Harper’s] view of history is profoundly different than what most Canadians would accept.”
Altering our view of history?
Canons on Franklin ship underwater in Arctic – Parks Canada photo
McKay said he first noticed what he believes is Harper’s attempt to alter our history with the makeover of the Citizenship Handbook in 2008. What once was a dull guide to government and how to vote, got remade with more romantic and adventurous accounts of Canada’s military past.
In 2011, Harper’s government also oversaw the renaming of the navy and air force to the “Royal Canadian Navy” and “Royal Canadian Air force” – a reversal to when the “royal” was removed by Liberal Prime Minister Lester Pearson nearly half a century ago.
Then in 2012, the Prime Minister gave a huge push to commemorate the War of 1812 across Canada.
Even in Vancouver, 19th century-dressed actors with muskets told passers-by and children at Canada Place about the heroic defence of Upper and Lower Canada from American invaders.
The altering of history has also been institutional, said McKay.
The Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa (formerly the “Canadian Museum of Civilization”) was recast with less history stories about immigrants and ordinary citizens, and given more emphasis on soldiers and war. The National Archives was also restructured to focus on the needs of military historians.
“What I find troubling is how this government is pushing this view of history so aggressively.”
“It comes fairly close to official propaganda in the name of history,” said McKay.
Stephen Harper announcing the Franklin ship discovery Tuesday in Ottawa – Parks Canada photo
The Prime Minister is clearly passionate about Canada’s past. He’s authored a book about hockey history, for example. But his interest in the north runs deep.
Harper has made nine annual trips to the Arctic since becoming Prime Minister – each one, providing more photo ops for millions of Canadians. Lately, he’s been seen handling a rifle, and strutting the front of HMCS Kingston defence ship in frigid waters.
Montreal author Yves Engler says the imagery and historic revivals are all about party branding.
“He’s trying to portray the Conservative Party of Canada as the patriotic party,” said Engler.
The writer says for a right-wing party to be successful they need to build their nationalistic image. The CPC website states: “Stephen Harper is dedicated to building a stronger, prouder” Canada.
“If you want working class people to vote against their economic interest for a party that is big business orientated – you have to make them identify with that party and those politics in some other way – and nationalism and militarism is part of that,” said Engler.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper on HMCS Kingston in Arctic – PMO photo
But there is a political cost too, said Engler.
“This doesn’t play [here] in Quebec. The royal stuff doesn’t play at all.”
“This is clearly a sign they are to a large extent giving up in Quebec. In 2011, they were able to get the majority without Quebec, and that was basically a first in Canadian history.”
Conservative federal seats in Quebec dropped from 10 to 5, in the same election that the “orange crush” grew NDP’s fortunes dramatically in la belle province.
Not to be outdone by Harper, NDP’s leader Thomas Mulcair also recently toured the Arctic to meet people and capture his own photo ops.
Neither he, nor Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau chose to comment on this story.