Canada's history not always so 'strong, proud, free'

While many of our anniversaries warrant remembrance and our collective reflection due to their significance, it is important to critically analyze the notion of historical significance and whose agenda is being bolstered and to what end.

Federal government's recent ad campaign distorts history, says Matt Henderson

The $7.2-million ad campaign for Canada's 150th anniversary has begun 2½ years in advance, raising the suspicions of critics who say it's being used to bolster the Conservative brand. (Canadian Heritage)

As a species, we excel at inventing anniversaries and special dates that are meant to signify historical significance and moments of remembrance or celebration. These are human constructs based on our imaginations and designed to make meaning out of our brief and complex lives.

Take 2014 for instance; we are in the process of wrapping up commemorations of the First World War, positioning Charlottetown and Quebec Conference celebrations, and recognizing those who surmounted the baffling odds by storming Juno Beach 70 years ago. Just days ago in the Winnipeg Free Press, Allan Levine provided a powerful glimpse into the historic Christmas truce of 1914.

While many of these anniversaries warrant remembrance and our collective reflection due to their significance, it is important to critically analyze the notion of historical significance and whose agenda is being bolstered and to what end.

The War of 1812 speaks to the politicization of significance. The Canadian Government created a bizarre advertising campaign and spent millions of dollars on a relatively non-event in European history.

While the rest of the West was trying to rid itself of Napoleon, the United States could barely muster enough competent farmers to survive harsh winters, a few British Red Coats and the formidable forces led by our first peoples. We didn't defeat a mighty foe as recent advertisements would have us believe; we burnt down our sick and ailing cousin's log cabin.

The real story of the War of 1812 is how agreements were not upheld between the British and Tecumseh and how in 2012, Canada spent millions of dollars trumping this backwoods skirmish up to some sort of David and Goliath saga. (Frustratingly, this propaganda campaign occurred at the same time funding was being slashed from something truly significant in the Experimental Lakes Area, a station in northwestern Ontario carrying out invaluable freshwater research.)

Strong, proud, free?

Now in 2014 and as we head toward the 150th anniversary of Confederation, we see a new political campaign on the horizon – oddly positioned in the midst of an impending federal election.

The Government of Canada has now released a “strong, proud, free” campaign, enshrined with vignettes, contests and political posturing.

Strong, proud, free? Are we being sold sport utility vehicles or enlisted into the marines? Where did this concept come from? Granted, the ideas of strength and freedom are mentioned in one line in our national anthem, but this has nothing to do with our national motto (from sea to sea), any of the more than 30 documents which constitute our constitution, or even the idea of peace, order, and good government – the latter originally envisioned as peace, welfare (happiness), and good government in such minor statutes as the Royal Proclamation and the Quebec Act.

Pride? This word communicates a sense of completion. What, then, in 2014 are we being told by our government that we should be prideful of? I can understand peace, welfare, and good government; these are ongoing goals that require continued stewardship, reflection and care.

I see no place for pride as we ignore the rights of Canada’s first inhabitants- Matt Henderson

I can even live with strong and free. But should I really be proud of a nation that is still in the process of creation, a nation that has just come to recognize the genocide that afforded us our national wealth?

I prefer to look history square in the face and choose humility over pride. I ask for the demonstrative leadership that made us once a peacekeeping nation that created laws and programs that made our society just. 

Pride makes us feel comfortable and secure and swells our hearts with feelings of accomplishment. Indeed, there are specific points in our history of which Canadians should be proud.

How we entered into the world wars immediately and how we did not enter the second Gulf War despite pressure from imperial powers past and present provides a few good examples. In these cases, Canada demonstrated courage and leadership.

These are completed events enabling us to evaluate and pronounce judgment of pride, shame or insignificance. Canada, however, is not a completed event of which we can claim pride, and any attempt to claim this feeling for a nation as opposed to an event in a nation is a manipulative act. And it carries the spectre of nationalism. 

In 2014 we are not following the bravery of our forebears; rather, I only see acts of cowardice toward the global crises of our time. We ignore evidence, obfuscate truths and deny the sacrifices needed to respond to the national nightmare of climate change. I similarly see no place for pride as we ignore the rights of Canada’s first inhabitants. For this I feel shame, not pride, for a fait accomplis.

There are many historically significant events in Canadian history which should make us proud, but part of being strong is the ability to temper this pride with the wisdom to use our advantage to create a better world.

I accept pride in the process of national betterment. Nationalism and the politicization of history have only narcissistic and self-fulfilling objectives, characteristics that once were antithetical to the Canadian sense of self, and were once aspects of the tyrannical regimes we fought so hard to defeat.

Matt Henderson is a teacher at St. John's-Ravenscourt School in Winnipeg. You can find him on Twitter: @henderson204.

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