Canada's many pasts will shape its future
The newly opened Canadian History Hall covers the expanse of the country's history, affirming links from past narratives to future hopes
In 2010, members of the shishalh First Nation in Sechelt, B.C., invited archeologists to investigate a site where they had spotted tiny beads emerging from the ground: the project uncovered the 4,000-year-old grave of a 50-year-old man surrounded by 350,000 beads fashioned from thin layers of shale and shell: the man must have been buried in a luxurious beaded garment that would have taken years to make. Nearby they found the bodies of three younger adults who had also been buried with elaborate beaded decorations that suggested rank and wealth. The shishalh had just found the grave of their first chief and his family.
That story is told in a display in the new Canadian History Hall at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., that includes some beads, computerized recreations of the family's faces and a video describing the find and its significance for the shishalh.
"There is the past truth," elder Lori Dixon says. "That means we will own our future."
The shishalh are not the only people seeking a national history. The Canadian History Hall, which was opened on Canada Day by Prince Charles and soon swarmed by thousands of eager visitors, contains numerous examples of groups affirming continuous links from past narratives to future hopes. There are the 18th-century Metis establishing themselves as a new people in Manitoba. Here, Quebeckers can trace their roots back to the habitants and filles du roi and then follow their cultural aspirations through to two referendums on independence. English Canadians, meanwhile, can track the story of their gradual emergence from British rule from responsible government to Vimy to Expo 67. If this is the story of Canada's past, who exactly is the "we" that owns the future?
The answer, it turns out, depends an awful lot on the political anxieties of the present moment. The first time this institution, then the new Canadian Museum of Civilization, designed the history hall in the late 1980s, the federal government had fairly recently adopted multiculturalism as official policy and Canadians were increasingly proud of that diversity. The hall had begun with the earliest European settlements and, through dioramas and reproductions, told a social history that was particularly concerned with the march of immigrants from east to west and the success of different groups in making their mark on the country, from the French, the English and the Metis to the Ukrainian, the Chinese and the Japanese.
When the institution changed its name and announced plans to revamp the history hall under Stephen Harper's Conservatives, many of us who cared about the museum's mandate were anxious that the politics of a government that loved the military and the monarchy were about to interfere. Today, under the Liberals, there's nothing partisan about the highly detailed and determinedly educational results which trace the history of human habitation in what is now Canada from the earliest Indigenous archeological evidence through to the present day.
But two things stand out: one is that this is a more conventional and more didactic approach to history, concentrating heavily on politics and economics. It seems there is not a major event in Canada's past – from the arrival of Samuel de Champlain (who gets more space than any other famous figure) to the building of the CPR, the introduction of public health care or the FLQ crisis – that goes unmarked.
And the second one is that the concern with multiculturalism has largely been replaced by a desire to trace the experience of Indigenous peoples at all points along the way. This time, the residential schools get almost as much attention as the First World War.
The exhibition, which is significantly larger than its predecessor, is divided into three parts. It begins with a fascinating section on the pre-historical Indigenous presence – who knew that hundreds of years before the Inuit arrived from Alaska, the Dorset people were carving tiny, delicate figures of humans and polar bears? – that continues with first contact with Europeans right through the history of New France. The second section covers the period of British rule and Confederation, and ends in 1914. The last one includes both World Wars and goes up to the present.
Each section includes numerous artifacts – General Wolfe's coat, Maurice Richard's jersey and Tommy Douglas's hat – as well as photographs, videos, interactive displays, games for younger visitors and acres of text panels, but in the midst of all this wealth it can be hard sometimes to find history's beating heart. A sculpture of dangling name cards representing the family tree of Catherine Moitié, a fille du roi shipped to New France at age 13 where she soon married a fellow servant and produced 11 children, is one of those precious moments where a physical display makes its point vivid: large Quebec families rapidly established a French fact in Canada that the British could not possibly deny. Similarly, the story of Nora Gibson, a wartime worker in the Can Car auto and aviation factory in Northern Ontario who married her supervisor, was given notice in 1947 and became a homemaker, is a powerful individual story of the postwar experience.
The quantity of information is so large it would be hard to believe anyone could find lacuna here. Still, those who strongly identify as hyphenated Canadians, and perhaps Western Canadians, too, may feel something is missing as the political history of the French and English dominates the exhibition. I've read that it does end with a section about a Syrian refugee family, but I was too overwhelmed to spot it. The new history hall will be with us for years to come, so it would probably be more fruitful to visit its three sections in a more leisurely way, one by one.
What will visitors make of this approach to Canada as the years go by? Will reconciliation have been achieved and new social projects call for new changes to the national narrative? Canadians may own the future, but it's hard to predict our shifting views of many pasts.