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J.D.M. Stewart: History should be debated, not expunged

Commentary

The recent decision by Library and Archives Canada to delete a website focused on the prime ministers of this country is just one of the latest examples of a nation uncertain of how to deal with its past. 

The website in question, called First Among Equals, was established in 1994 and contained quick biographical information about all of the country’s prime ministers, including speech excerpts, short sketches of their legacies, and information about their private lives. At the time of its unveiling, five former prime ministers attended an upbeat ceremony.

The site was meant to bring some life to the country’s former leaders through anecdote, analysis, and historical artefacts. But no more. The website has been unceremoniously scrubbed. Students, teachers, and the wider public are no longer able to access the website. 

It is well understood that historical interpretations change over time. As LAC spokesperson Pascal Laplante told Ottawa-based Blacklock’s Reporter, “[The site] is outdated historical content that no longer reflects current understanding of history.” LAC was “ensuring web content is accurate and up to date,” he said.

It has been nearly 30 years since this website was updated, and no doubt it was time for renewal. A revamped website would have been a great benefit to those seeking to understand the country better. But that is not the case. 

Incredibly, there is no plan to replace the deleted site. Marie-Ève Doucet, the senior communications advisor at LAC, said that, “in the short term, we plan to update the PM web page with quick links to all of the PM archives found in Collection Search.”

That translates as: There will be no new website dedicated to the country’s prime ministers, but we will have links directing you to find the primary documents on your own.

What is also quite clear in this sorry episode is that the real target of the memory hole was Sir John A. Macdonald, whose page neglected to mention the shameful legacy of residential schools. A second standalone exhibit on him was also deleted.

Did the pages on Lester B. Pearson and Arthur Meighen also no longer reflect the “current understanding of history?” And how much understanding of the history of Canadian prime ministers will there be now that the entire website has been deleted?  

Was there a better way to handle this than to remove a website entirely with so little explanation? Of course. There should have been a replacement project already undertaken and ready to unveil. A rewritten and superbly constructed site useful for all Canadians but particularly students is what was needed. But maybe studying some of the country’s most important leaders is something the Trudeau government is signalling as no longer important.

The Trudeau government is clearly pushing back against former prime minister Stephen Harper’s vision of Canadian history.

A 2019 cabinet directive about historical monuments and plaques noted that the legacies of “colonialism, racism, and patriarchy” must be considered. All well and good. But does that mean throwing everything else out?

The Trudeau government is clearly pushing back against former prime minister Stephen Harper’s vision of Canadian history, a philosophy that included spending nearly $30 million promoting education about the War of 1812 as well as highlighting Canadian contributions to the wars of the 20th century. It was further reflected in the publication of its 2009 Canadian citizenship guide titled Discover Canada, which the Liberal government itself is now revising. There will be more historical battles to come. 

This latest Orwellian deletion of important history is not limited to prime ministers, however. LAC also vanished a website dedicated to the War of 1812 and Canadian Confederation. Elsewhere, other historical figures are being airbrushed from the national story.

For example, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin, a Canadian scientific achievement led by doctors Frederick Banting, Charles Best and James Collip at the University of Toronto. Banting was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923 for his work but a coin to be released by the Royal Canadian Mint will make no reference to him at all.

When websites are removed and statues taken away, it seems obvious that thoughts turn to George Orwell’s 1984 (are they even teaching that anymore?). “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street renamed, every date has been altered,” he wrote in the famous dystopian novel that is now more relevant than ever. “And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

History should be debated, not expunged. Statues should remain with more context added to them, not removed. Individuals should be both celebrated and criticized, not disappeared. 

“There are also many lessons and much advice offered by history, and it is easy to pick and choose what you want,” wrote Margaret MacMillan, one of our most gifted historians, in her 2008 book The Uses and Abuses of History. “The past can also be used for almost anything you want in the present. We abuse it when we create lies about the past or write histories that show only one perspective.”

In some arenas, addition by subtraction works. Not in history. 

Harry Rakowski: Is there intelligent life on Earth?

Commentary

The Hub launched with a core mission of getting Canadians thinking about the future. We’ve been stuck in the doldrums, pessimistic and polarized, for too long. To lay out a roadmap for the next 30 years of Canadian life, we asked our contributors to pinpoint the most consequential issue, idea or technology for the country in 2050. This series of essays by leading thinkers will illuminate Canada’s next frontier.

There has been a lot of discussion lately about whether there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

The further exploration of Mars has stimulated our interest in whether there ever was life on other planets that we can reach. Given that our solar system is but a grain of sand in the cosmic universe it stands to reason that intelligent life is out there somewhere.

The recent declassification of videos of credible UFO sightings further promotes the belief that earth is being watched by alien life in an attempt to better understand who we are and how developed we have become. Are we advanced enough for them to make formal contact yet or will they continue to simply observe us?

Let’s suppose that we were beamed up to an intergalactic probe examining how we earthlings live and behave. We can temporarily see the earth from their perspective but the memory will be erased when we are beamed back. How would we see our world through their eyes?

Is it yet time to reveal who they are and how advanced they have become. Tuning in to the evening news makes it seem that the world is only full of disaster. Severe drought and raging fires continue likely due to our inability to accept and deal with legitimate concerns about climate change.

Widespread pollution of the Earth’s air, water supply and oceans continues at an alarming rate. They see a world with abundant food production yet there is widespread famine, poverty and malnutrition. Greed fuels an epidemic of addiction to drugs and painkillers without remorse or adequate retribution. Widespread polarization of thought, increasing tribalism, political repression and limitation of free speech continues to threaten democracy.

Over the past few centuries man’s inhumanity to man has slowly lessened but remains ingrained in how we act towards one another. Wars continue to rage. Fratricidal rage fuelled by illusions of religious superiority continue. An impending nuclear Holocaust is only a madman’s finger away. How can an enlightened galactic civilization connect with such dysfunctional earthlings? Is there hope for Earth or is it on a path to extinction? 

Every year extraterrestrials circle the planet looking for rays of hope that civilization is becoming more civilized and will survive. They expose themselves briefly so that we can understand that we are being observed and that we need to rein in our basest actions to survive.

Technology helps guide our understanding of the universe but alone is not nearly enough to overcome our challenges.

The prime directive of the alien lifeform remains to not fully show themselves and actively affect our future. They did come subtly to Gene Roddenberry through his dreams with the idea of creating Star Trek and predicting our technological future and the path we need to take. Space exploration, personal wearable telecommunication devices, tasers set on stun, 3D replicators, tractor beams, virtual reality holodecks, cloaking devices, voice activated computers. Siri and Alexa please help me.

Star Trek also taught us about external villains such as the evil Klingons who attack us and the Borg collective that subjugates all that it encounters. They are the imaginary external enemies that mimic our known ones. We need the resolve and determination to overcome them. If only we were lead by someone like Captain Kirk.

Technology helps guide our understanding of the universe but alone is not nearly enough to overcome our challenges. We won’t understand the cosmos until we look inward to better understand ourselves.

Every year we make some progress. There is less famine, a little less racism, greater productivity and empowerment through education. We still have much to learn from those that teach us by example how to lead our lives. They are those who show us the way by their kindness, generosity, caring and compassion. Through them the world becomes a better place.

We are being observed to see if with subtle guidance we can find our way. In order to seek out and understand other intelligent life in the universe, our civilization needs to up its game to define a better future.

Intelligent life in the universe will reach out to us when they are confident that we can steer our ship by a higher moral compass. When can our starship plot that course to go where we have not gone before? We all need to try and make it so.