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

Commentary

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.

Brian Bird: It feels a lot like the early days of the pandemic again. But should it?

Commentary

Something strange happened this summer. Almost overnight, it felt like we were transported back to the early days of the pandemic — to that month of March we will never forget.

I’m not talking about cases or hospitalizations. The numbers, comparing now and then, speak for themselves. I’m talking about our outlook for the future, and our sense of where we stand now in relation to COVID-19. Many of us seem as anxious today as we were at the start, if not more so.

The initial weeks of the new school year at the university where I teach have been revealing in this regard. On several occasions, colleagues of mine have voiced a significant degree of anxiety over being back on campus and in the classroom again.

I have every reason to believe these colleagues are vaccinated. Almost all the students we teach are vaccinated. We know the vaccines are superb at preventing severe illness and hospitalization. With these facts in hand, I was not particularly anxious about returning to campus. So why are my colleagues worried?

Fear of COVID-19 appears to have resurged during the Delta chapter. Contrary to what one might expect, this fear does not neatly align with vaccination status. I suspect we all know vaccinated persons who remain very afraid of the virus.

The Delta variant poses unique challenges, but we have pulled too many fire alarms in too many places. We need to take a breath and regain our bearings, or else — in a certain respect — this pandemic will last far longer than it should.

Over the past 18 months, many of us have embraced an unrealistic and even utopian expectation of safety from COVID-19. The rise of this mindset is one of the many ways in which this pandemic has thrown us off balance. It will take some time for us to regain our footing, but we need to be intentional about it. The mending of our perspective on safety, so that it reflects the realities of human existence and accepts what we feasibly can and cannot control, will not happen automatically.

The pursuit of near absolute safety from COVID-19 has steadily intensified over the course of the pandemic in part because questioning this pursuit, even mildly, is often considered politically incorrect. It seems fair to say that being publicly and scrupulously cautious of COVID-19 — opting to go above and beyond on this front — has become, to some extent and at some level, a marker of being enlightened and progressive.

It often seems like there are only two types of people in the world: the COVID-conscious on the one hand and the dangerous denialists on the other.

As a result, in pandemic parlance, it often seems like there are only two types of people in the world: the COVID-conscious on the one hand and the dangerous denialists on the other. Framing the discourse on COVID-19 in this way has likely impeded our ability to tackle this pandemic as thoughtfully as we otherwise could have. To our detriment, little space has been made for the moderate middle.

Overwhelming our hospitals remains a credible threat, and in certain parts of Canada a growing reality, due to the highly contagious Delta variant. We must continue to encourage unvaccinated persons, by far the likeliest segment of the population to be hospitalized, to get the vaccine.

The fumes on which healthcare workers are running, and their unwavering heroism from day one of this ordeal, are reasons enough to get the shot. The vaccines are safe, effective and a lifeboat in this storm. Unless you have a sincere and serious concern about the vaccines that is untainted by misinformation, the time to get vaccinated is now. Frankly, the time to get vaccinated was yesterday. And the time to protest in front of hospitals was never.

But what I have heard from my colleagues does not sound like worry for the healthcare system, though I am sure they worry about it. As far as I can tell, they are worried about their health and safety at our workplace. They are genuinely nervous, as if our campus is fraught with danger.

These moments remind me of when I was in a university classroom on the eve of the pandemic. But the situation, at least in Canada, is not the same today. Given where we are in this fight, possessing one of the highest national vaccination rates, an atmosphere of dread across the board is neither justified nor conducive to an exit strategy.

A return to relative normalcy will remain elusive if we remain deeply worried about the virus after we are vaccinated, let alone worried about it in settings where virtually everyone is vaccinated. Projecting these worries onto others, potentially rendering them needlessly fearful, is not helpful. In one way or another, all of us can — all of us should — try to improve in this department. All things considered, a booster shot of cautious optimism would be appropriate and beneficial.

We would also do well to accept that the eradication of COVID-19 is not our current objective. The virus is here to stay for now, but that does not mean — given the efficacy of the vaccines and what we have learned — that we must live in fear. We must guard against unchecked trepidation or else we must brace for, sociologically speaking, another kind of pandemic.

Unvaccinated persons and the misinformation keeping many of them unvaccinated are, without question, prolonging the pandemic. But regardless of our vaccination status, if we have come to expect or demand impossible guarantees of safety from COVID-19, we are prolonging it too.