Ben Woodfinden: Canada has plenty of room for improvement when it comes to historical education

Veterans protest before the removal of a statue Sir John A. Macdonald in Kingston, Ontario on Friday June 18, 2021.  Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press.

Over the coming days, The Hub will publish mandate letters for the incoming cabinet ministers that set out a series of bold policy prescriptions that would cumulatively tilt Canadian politics towards a different and better future.

The best antidote to anger and frustration is aspiration and purpose. The campaign has demonstrated how urgently Canada’s body politic needs such a remedy. There’s no time to waste. It’s time to get to work.

Dear Minister of Canadian Heritage,

I am honoured that you have agreed to serve as our Minister of Canadian Heritage.

As Canada emerges out of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Canadians are expecting their government to lead the way and help us emerge stronger and more resilient than before. This pandemic has tested and put strain on many of our public institutions, and as we emerge out of the pandemic it is a priority of this government that we help stabilize and strengthen our political and public institutions to protect their integrity and public trust in our institutions.

The pandemic has also undoubtedly exacerbated worrying trends that we are seeing both at home and abroad, trends like political polarization, misinformation, and fracturing, and it is of paramount concern for this government that we help keep Canadians united. A united Canada is a strong Canada, and the government of Canada is the central institution that promotes Canadian unity. As Minister of Heritage, you will play a crucial role in fulfilling this objective.

Unity does not require homogeneity, and as part of your mandate in this ministry, protecting and promoting the wide diversity that exists within Canada will be important. Canada’s heritage is a rich cultural tapestry, and our regional, linguistic, and ethnic diversity is central to who we are as Canadians. As Minister of Canadian Heritage, you will lead work to help educate, protect, promote, and celebrate this heritage. This will include collaborative work with other ministers in our government to support both official languages, reconciliation, and Canadian citizenship. Canada has much to offer the world, and a crucial part of this mandate will be help facilitate policy that can help promote and export Canadian cultural products globally. We are government that is unapologetically Canadian, and we believe Canada is special. Part of your mandate will be to help the rest of the world see this.

While Heritage is a portfolio committed to preserving and promoting Canada’s past, we expect this to be a very future oriented portfolio given what the protection of Canadian heritage is going to require in the world we find ourselves in. Much of Canada’s existing cultural policy was designed for a pre-digital world, and the digital age that we now live in requires not just updating but rethinking and rewriting much of this policy architecture. Our government is a future-oriented one, and we are committed to the basic assumption that the preservation and protection of Canadian heritage requires a future-oriented approach to protecting it and building policy frameworks and institutions built for the digital age.

Protecting and preserving Canadian heritage means promoting Canadian heritage to Canadians, and making Canadian heritage more accessible. Canada has plenty of room for improvement when it comes to historical education and public history, and our government is committed to making our history more accessible to Canadians and more widely known. This task includes both the restoration and preservation of public monuments and structures, supporting efforts to improve access and digitization of historical records, and public education to help increase knowledge and awareness of Canadian history and Canadian institutions.

To help our government achieve these overarching goals I ask that you, as the Minister of Canadian heritage, work with your colleagues to deliver on the following key priorities:

  • Undertake a large-scale consultation on the modernization and redesign of Canada’s cultural policy framework for the digital age. The goal is to promote the export of Canada’s cultural content to global markets.
  • Draft new legislation that will replace Bill C-10 and update the Broadcasting Act to deal with the new realities of online media and streaming services that don’t necessarily fit older broadcasting models. This will include requiring large digital streaming services to reinvest a significant portion of their Canadian gross revenue into producing original Canadian programming, of which a mandated proportion must be French language programming. We want to preserve Canadian digital sovereignty and ensure that rules governing the digital realm are made in Canada and not elsewhere, protect Canadian culture and content, and keep the digital realm free and open to enable Canadian creators to thrive and preserve to the greatest extent possible a free and open internet.
  • Conduct a full mandate review of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to reimagine the role of a public broadcaster in the digital age. The goal of this modernization of the CBC will include streamlining its funding and focus to enhance local news coverage, especially in underserved media markets where local media is disappearing and to help CBC play a crucial role in shaping the national consciousness with its media coverage by ensuring it focuses on Canadian news and content and ensuring it isn’t competing with private broadcasters and digital providers by refocusing its model to a public interest model. This will include examining closely the mandates of CBC English Television, CBC News Network and CBC English online news. The mandate review should also examine separating Radio-Canada to help it serve its distinct mandate to promote francophone language and culture.
  • Renew the Building Communities Through Arts and Heritage Program for an additional three years and consult with stakeholders on how better to deliver arts and heritage programming in communities across the country, including Indigenous, rural, and remote communities.
  • Create a new Canadian Heritage Preservation Fund that will provide grants to municipal governments over the next five years for the repair and restoration of historical monuments, statues, and heritage buildings. The goal of this fund is not simply the preservation of historic buildings and structures, but to make Canadian history more public to Canadians and enable them to better understand their history in our public spaces and structures.
  • Re-appoint and establish a permanent Advisory Committee on Vice-Regal Appointments to make formal recommendations on viceregal appointments.
  • Remove admission fees from our national museums across the country.
  • Designate the grave sites of former Prime Ministers and Governors General as national historic sites.
  • Establish a new Canadian Heritage fund to support research and work to promote and make more accessible Canadian history. This includes work and projects that will digitize and make publicly available Canadian historic records. This also includes building new tools and mediums to help Canadians access and understand historical records, supporting academic and historic research, and funding to support public education programs that educate Canadians about their history. The fund will also support research and public education about Canada’s historic institutions, including the Crown and parliament.

Thank you again for your commitment to serve Canadians. This is an ambitious portfolio, and this is an ambitious government. The moment we find ourselves in demands ambition. I know you are up for this challenge, and I look forward to working with you to achieve our goals for the protection and promotion of Canadian heritage.

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