Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Conscripting Canada's Past: The Harper Government and the Politics of Memory

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Conscripting Canada's Past: The Harper Government and the Politics of Memory

Article excerpt


The text that follows is intended as a commentary on the political uses of the past in contemporary Canada. It takes as its subject the mobilization of the Canadian past by the conservative government of Stephen Harper, in power since 2006, and thus represents an exercise in current history (histoire immediate), with all of the possibilities and dangers inherent in the genre. (2) For one thing, I do not know how the story will end, nor even whether this government will last beyond the 2015 election year. Nor do I know whether the conservatives' refashioning of the nation's historical memory will continue in the same direction. I do not even know what impact their politics of memory will have on Canadian identity. All of this lies beyond my knowledge--and this is a plus. Indeed, the Harper government's actions with regard to national memory constitute what we might call l'histoire a chaud--history that is hot, controversial, of burning concern, and in-the-making. As a historian faced with this situation, I am more than just a witness; I am an actively engaged participant. And not so much for reasons of ideology--though these necessarily influence my perspective--as for reasons grounded in how I view the historian's professional role and the place of historical knowledge in society. History for me has three essential and intersecting functions: to cultivate informed citizens prepared to ask tough questions regardless of their political affiliation or that of their government; to foster openness to other people, regardless of the era in which they lived or the continent they might inhabit; and to highlight the complexity of historical phenomena and the actors that drive them. To be sure, these three functions of history are, more often than not, quite far removed from the minds of politicians when they make use of the past. In the case of the Harper government, we see a fundamental opposition to them.

As previously indicated, this essay is a commentary. I would not know how to approach the subject otherwise, being neither a theorist of memory nor an expert on the relationship between history and memory. Although I have occasionally researched commemorative practices among Francophone minorities in North America, (3) the perspective I bring to this essay is above all practical. As Chair of the Advocacy Committee of the Canadian Historical Association (hereafter CHA) since June 2012, I follow the government's commemorative and heritage policies closely. I have been particularly involved in discussions about the new Canadian Museum of History (hereafter CMH), which was built upon the ashes of the Canadian Museum of Civilization (hereafter CMC). (4) Convinced that one cannot leave commemoration to those who might be tempted to celebrate the past uncritically, I have also over the years taken an active part in various commemorative projects, especially those of the Ontario Heritage Trust and the National Capital Commission (hereafter NCC). I currently serve as Chair of the latter's External Advisory Committee of Experts on Commemoration.


It is well known that Canada, like the rest of the Western world, is experiencing a period of profound transformation. For more than twenty-five years neoliberalism --sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly--has steadfastly increased its hold. In the context of this general sea change, the coming to power of Stephen Harper's conservatives in 2006 marked a turning point, as did their 2011 parliamentary majority victory.

Studies that explain the party's electoral successes and ideological principles have proliferated, intersected, and sometimes clashed. (5) For some, we are facing the continental spillover of the American Right's influence (6); for others, Canadian conservatism carries its own distinctive features rooted in a long tradition (7); still others maintain that it represents a synthesis. (8) In this debate, no one is completely wrong; however, no one is completely right either. …

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