The Information Policy Blog

The (unofficial) blog of the BCLA Information Policy Committee

Challenging Historical Revisionism

When one sees a headline like “Stephen Harper’s Conservatives to lead review of Canadian history” it’s kind of (read: exceedingly) difficult not to drop an Orwell reference, so let’s consider this sentence fulfilment of that obligation and move along. The gist of the story is that the House of Commons heritage committee is going to review the programs and educational standards related to Canadian history with best practices and opportunities etc.

For those inclined to give the government the benefit of the doubt, there’s some laudable language in the minutes from the meeting:

And that emphasis be placed on Canadians’ access to historical information and education, by studying the following topics:

  • How Hansard can be used as a means of preserving important witness testimony and part of the permanent public record;
  • The tools and methods available for Canadians to access and preserve historical content; and
  • The tools and methods available to Canadians to increase their knowledge of Canadian history.

This actually sounds great. As an information professional I am all for improving access to information about our history, and I think that archivists and librarians would agree. But the benefits of these words only come about if we’re dealing with a government operating in good faith.

And there’s the rub.

This is a government that has been doing its best to keep information from its citizens (muzzled scientists, dismantling the ELA, and of course our LAC colleagues’ high-risk activities) not improve access. This meeting of the heritage committee was held in camera. Why? Who knows? And the information that it has been promoting is focused on a particular view of Canada’s history in relation to military battles. First Nations history is invisible. Topics like post-war Canada are exceedingly broad, but the Battle of Ortona gets its own shout-out. This is a skewed, essentialist view of history, and it makes the blood in historians I know boil. It’s also worth noting that part of this historical review is focused on getting the CBC and National Film Board to discuss their role in preserving important accounts of history they have in their collections. Combine this with the control the government is taking over Canada’s public broadcaster and one wonders how much cost-cutting will have a role in preserving alternative accounts.

Colin Horgan uses the term “coerced coincidence” in his discussion of this parliamentary review. It’s probably not about the government pushing certain ideas into people’s brains, but about limiting the discussion to things that kind of fit with the CPC’s view of Canadianness. The Ottawa Citizen notes in an editorial:

Another reason to do this review now is that the federal government is in the midst of a cost-cutting exercise that’s affecting many of the institutions responsible for teaching Canadians their history. It’s all well and good to invest in and rebrand the Canadian Museum of History, but it’s perhaps more important to maintain the small museums and built heritage that tend to suffer the most from budget cuts.

Which brings us back, as information professionals to the cuts at Library and Archives Canada (here’s a reminder of what those cuts entail from 2012).

Maybe this review of Canadian history will point out that programs like the National Archives Development Program are important ways to give Canadians access to historical content, and those programs will be reinstated. But actually getting a good result out of this review will be impossible if we don’t engage with it and advocate for those tools and methods that all Canadians can use to deal with their history in all its shapes and forms. They say that is their goal, so we as information professionals should hold them to it.

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