Liberals downplay military role in Canada 150 celebrations, some historians say

The Liberal government is sidelining the critical role of Canada's military in shaping the nation's last 150 years and its future, some historians say.

4 key themes for sesquicentennial celebrations are diversity, youth, environment and Indigenous reconciliation

A CF-18 demonstration jet has been painted for Canada 150. (Cpl. Manuela Berger/DND)

As the country readies to mark Canada 150, the Liberal government is sidelining the critical role the military played in shaping the nation in the sesquicentennial celebrations, some historians say.

The Armed Forces will have a presence at Canada Day events across the country, including a fly-past of vintage aircraft and the iconic Snowbirds over Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

National Defence has also created an interactive map to chronicle the activities and impact that the Forces have had in communities across the country. It does not reflect Canada's role in international conflicts.

But University of Calgary military historian David Bercuson says the Liberals are making a political calculation in toning down its focus on the military around the milestone birthday.

On one hand, the party wants to showcase Canada's robust contributions to international allied operations. But on the other hand, it also needs to appeal to "pacifist" Canadians who traditionally vote NDP.

Canadian milestones like this are an important opportunity to not only remember the sacrifice of fallen soldiers, Bercuson says, but also to note the role military members played in shaping the development of the country industrially, economically and socially.

Yet that is not at the forefront of Canada 150 celebrations, he says. "I'm not surprised. I wish it were different."

Canadian Heritage is focusing on four key themes across government departments: diversity and inclusion; youth; environmental stewardship; and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.

Promoting diversity in the ranks

A presentation on the military's role in Canada 150 said the Forces are also emphasizing their policies around the government's four themes, including promoting diversity in the ranks, recruiting cadets and younger members, and boosting the number of Indigenous personnel.

It also outlined other steps being taken to mark the milestone, including a new red-and-white paint scheme of a CF-18 demonstration aircraft. And on July 1, the air force, army and navy will take part in various events across the country, including in Ottawa, Vancouver and Toronto.

And the department has created various promotional materials, including event flags, ship banners, vehicle magnets, hand-held flags and tattoos.

Canada 150 is a time to reflect on the extraordinary "story of the nation," and our military history is a part of that, says military historian Jack Granatstein

"Diversity and reconciliation, for the most part, tend to look forward, and that's fine. I think at a 150th anniversary, it's appropriate to look forward," he said. "But it's also appropriate to look back to see where we came from, why we did what we did, how we did it. It wasn't all perfect, Lord knows. But it's worth remembering. 

"Military history is a part of that. More than 100,000 Canadians were killed in service of this nation, in service of values that I think we still believe in."

Military heritage spending declines

Granatstein said there is a "popular perception" that the Conservatives were trying to remake Canada's history in a military fashion, but the Harper government actually backed off after a backlash from some historians over War of 1812 celebrations.

An internal DND evaluation released earlier this year shows a 10 per cent decline over a five-year period on spending on military heritage and history: from $88 million in 2009-10, to $81 million in 2013-14.

Figures provided to CBC News show an even further decline in the years since, with spending dropping to $74.1 million in 2015-16.

"Some challenges exist, in part driven by significant funding reductions, but also through the lack of a co-ordinated approach within the department," the evaluation reads.

The spending goes toward program activities that promote Canadian national identity and support historical ceremonial events, from landmark battles such as Vimy Ridge and D-Day, to operating Canada's Snowbirds.

Balancing priorities

Steve Harris, who oversees DND's directorate of history and heritage, said the funding gap has meant doing some things more slowly. But he said cutbacks were in lock-step with government-wide spending cuts.

"I can't quibble with that, because I don't believe history and heritage is more important than ammunition or boots, or looking after the ill and injured," he said.

The Liberal government is focusing on diversity, youth, the environment and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples as key themes for Canada 150 celebrations. (The Canadian Press)

Michael Behiels, a historian at the University of Ottawa, said Harper's vision for Canada 150 was to focus on celebrating past accomplishments, including the military, and reinforcing his "brand of British-Canadian nationalism."

"Harper, knee-deep in a major recession, was not in favour of a major and very expensive, Expo [1967]-style celebration that focused on Canadians' future-oriented aspirations," he said.

By the time Trudeau formed government in 2015, Behiels said, it was too late to make significant changes to 150 events in order to attract the world's attention.

"Trudeau could not launch an Expo 1967-type celebration since there was no time or serious funds," he said. "What he could do — and did — was to revamp the Harper narrow, military-focused agenda into a Liberal Party agenda that reinforces the brand of Liberal Canadian nationalism."


Kathleen Harris

Senior producer, Politics

Kathleen Harris is the senior producer for CBC.ca in the CBC's Parliament Hill bureau.